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'Dino Day' draws crowd to VMNH
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Jasmine Goodman, from left, 8, Raven Hairston, 7, and Jonathan Hankins 5, excavate fossils in a sand box at the Virginia Museum of Natural History on Saturday.
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Sunday, January 21, 2007

By SHAWN HOPKINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Children climbed on the back of a plastic dinosaur outside the Virginia Museum of Natural History. They turned, smiled and their parents took their picture.

Or they stared in wide-eyed wonder at a full scale, animated dinosaur model or dinosaur fossils from millions of years before they were born. They even looked at a well-preserved specimen of a dinosaur with feathers and, even if they did not understand its significance as a link between dinosaur and bird, they peered intently, took cell phone pictures and talked excitedly to their parents.

These scenes was repeated more than once Saturday during the museum's Dino Day, a child-focused day of activities that drew more than 800 people for what museum staff said was probably its most popular festival event of its kind to date. It also was the last one the museum expects to hold at its old location on Douglas Avenue before the new museum on Starling Avenue opens in March.

"It went out with a bang," said Zach Ryder, a marketing associate for the museum.

Although the day featured viewing of dinosaurs from China, the feathered dinosaur, a scavenger hunt and a "dino dig" in a sand box, the highlight of the day probably was two presentations by Don "Dino Don" Lessem, a paleontologist and author of books about dinosaurs.

Dozens of children and their parents crowded into a museum conference room to watch Lessem, an affable, mustachioed man in a red plaid shirt, talk about dinosaurs, his experiences as a paleontologist and his work as a consultant on the movie "Jurassic Park."�

Lessem used humor and audience participation. He had children demonstrate how dinosaurs walk, with their legs underneath, and how that is different than lizards, with their legs spread out. He had children represent their favorite dinosaurs, and then placed them in a line across the room as sort of a living dinosaur timeline.

To impart some perspective, he stood one boy on a chair to represent a vertical timeline of the history of the earth. Starting when the earth began more than 4 billion years ago and going up, the dinosaurs would have existed for only the segment of the timeline represented by the boy's head, he said. The time human's have existed only accounts for one of the hairs on the boy's head, he said, and the boy had short hair.

"Lots of the things you know about dinosaurs are wrong," Lessem told the audience. There was no brontosaurus, he said, and the flying pterandons and the swimming plesiosaurs were not dinosaurs because dinosaurs lived on land.

But this is okay, he told the children. There is wrong information about dinosaurs because newer, more correct information is being discovered by paleontologists all the time.

He asked the children if they knew why they might have eaten a dinosaur this week, and why that might be a good thing to do.

"I'll give you a hint. Because it tastes like chicken," he said, explaining that birds are what dinosaurs evolved into.

He often mentioned his work consulting on "Jurassic Park," although he was quick to point out the movie was intentionally inaccurate in an effort to be more dramatic. The menacing movie velociraptor was smaller in reality, he said. He said the movie made the dinosaurs bigger because it could use human actors to act out and record the motions the dinosaurs made in the movie, such as jumping on a counter.

His last demonstration was talking one young boy into licking a fossil known as a copralite, explaining paleontologists can feel the difference between fossils and rocks with their tongues.

Some of the children were able to figure out what the copralite was.

"Dinosaur poop," said one girl brightly. "Yeah, it's poop," agreed another boy, which was followed with a chorus of "EEEEEEEEWWWW."�

Lessem explained that the copralite had been replaced by minerals and was not poop anymore.

Tammy Moore of Martinsville attended the Dino Day with her children, Alex Grace and Jarrett.

"We really enjoyed it," she said. "My children love dinosaurs and this just allows them to learn more."�

Alex participated in Lessem's presentation, standing in for her favorite dinosaur in the timeline. She said she wanted to be "triceratops."

Jarrett was more inclusive, saying "all of them" when asked what his favorite dinosaur was.

One young boy who was interested in Lessem's presentation, participating and interrupting to answer questions, was Aaron McGavock of Roanoke.

"I've been interested in them (dinosaurs) since kindergarten," said McGavock, admitting he was only in second grade now.

McGavock said he was impressed by Lessem's presentation.

"He's pretty cool," he said. "I think I want to do that when I grow up."�

Christopher Snells, a student at Carver Elementary, participated in Lessem's presentation and was looking at some of the life-size animated dinosaurs after.

"They're interesting," he said. He pointed to a fossil dinosaur skeleton and how "you can see what kind of teeth they have" and other details about the animal and how it lived from the skeleton.

Snells said he was also interested in being a paleontologist when he grew up.

 

 
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