- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2000

Dinosaurs are making one of their periodic comebacks into popular fancy. The "thunder lizards" are creating frenzied interest in the ivory towers of academe and in movie theaters, airports and McDonald's restaurants.

"Dinos have been popular and marketable because they are big, bizarre and dangerous but [are] not around anymore," said Mac West, a paleontologist and president of Informal Learning Services, a District of Columbia consultant to museums.

"Dinosaurs represent safe danger," Mr. West said.

Relics of the extinct animals also transfix youngsters, especially if the specimen is a 42-foot-long, 58-tooth Tyrannosaurus rex like the one the McDonald's Corp. has just put on tour.

"Kids have an incredible fascination with dinosaurs," said Amy Murray, McDonald's spokeswoman. "We are appealing to kids' imaginations."

With the help of McDonald's, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago acquired the largest T. rex skeleton ever found for $8.36 million the largest auction price ever paid for a fossil. The skeleton stands in the Chicago museum. It has been named "Sue" after Susan Hendrickson, the fossil hunter who found it a decade ago in the South Dakota Badlands.

Two identical models are set for a three-year, 18-city tour titled "A T. rex Named Sue." The tour begins Wednesday at Boston's Museum of Science. But one of the models has been on display at Union Station for more than a week. That "sneak peek" showing ends Monday.

In conjunction with its dinosaur promotion, McDonald's has sent a "Colossal Fossil" science curriculum kit to each of the nation's elementary schools.

The traveling fossil display helps "deliver educational messages about geological and biological evolution, mass extinction and biodiversity, plate tectonics, climate change and much more," Field Museum President John McCarter said.

McDonald's is calling the dinosaur tour its millennial gift to America, but it is using posters, hand puppets and figurines at its 13,000 restaurants to promote the Disney movie "Dinosaur."

Partially in reaction to the promotion, the movie has grossed $110.5 million since it opened May 19. It ranks fourth in the nation's box office receipts this week. But innate interest in the topic is clearly high. The Discovery Channel reported 36 million viewers saw at least part of its six-part BBC series titled "Walking With Dinosaurs."

The latest dinosaur craze began with the blockbuster movie "Jurassic Park" in 1993, and was fed by the sequel, "The Lost World."

Since then, the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum has erected two giant bronze dinosaurs at its entrance, and a commercial exhibit creator has placed "Lost World" multimedia presentations at various museums.

Long before "Sue" was unearthed, paleontologists from New York's American Museum of Natural History had found dinosaurs in Mongolia. But in the 1930s, war and revolution ended exploration in the area. Excavation didn't resume until the end of the Cold War. Last month, the New York museum opened "Fighting Dinosaurs: New Discoveries from Mongolia," an action exhibit that opened the same day as the Disney movie.

Despite the barrage of exposure to dinosaur lore, Americans still are having difficulty getting their facts straight, science teachers say.

According to a 1994 Harris Poll, a third of Americans accept the theory that dinosaurs were killed by a giant asteroid. Fifty-seven percent believe "a gradual change in climate" did the big beasts in, but 11 percent say "overhunting by early humans" exterminated dinosaurs.

Indeed, surveys indicate that more than half of Americans think people lived alongside T. rex and his dinosaur kin, all of which are thought to have vanished 65 million years ago long before man first appeared on Earth.

The name T. rex was coined in 1902 when the first partial specimen was discovered in Montana. The name is a Latin abbreviation for "tyrant lizard king."

This week, geologists announced that the 1902 T. rex specimen may have been the same kind of creature found in South Dakota in 1892 and called "Manospondylus gigas," a Latin phrase that describes its shape.

According to scientific protocol, the earliest Latin name sticks, so the specter of dropping T. rex for the more awkward term now is troubling some scientists.

The name change would require overwhelming evidence that the two fossils are the same kind of dinosaur, paleontologist Carrie Herbel told the Associated Press this week. "I think that would be very difficult [to prove] at best," she said.

Beyond that, there is a dispute whether dinosaurs are reptiles or birds.

"The 'birds-are-dinosuars' people have dominated this discussion for a long time," said Storrs L. Olson, curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History.

"There are a lot of problems with birds being dinosaurs," he said. Still, the theory has been publicized in the popular media.

Mr. Olson said there is no concrete proof regarding origins and evolution of birds. He accepts evidence that birds arose long before dinosaurs.

"To overturn birds-are-dinosaurs would be a tremendous embarrassment," he said. "There are millions of dollars and lot of careers tied up in this [debate]." He said a Science magazine article to be published June 23 will continue the contentious dispute.

Mr. West, the museum consultant, said debates over dinosaurs illustrate the probing and tentative nature of science inquiry.

"When I was young, dinos were [depicted as] slow and stupid, dragging their tails, supported by the buoyancy of water," he said.

Museum murals for decades illustrated this image, he said. Then came the "brash" idea that dinosaurs were warm-blooded. The beasts then were portrayed as "active, intelligent and often social creatures. We will never know it all," he added."

One reason so many Americans put dinosaurs and humans in the same time and place, science educators have said, is the years of Sunday school teaching of a creation of man and beast all at one time.

Saturday in Florence, Ky., just outside Cincinnati, the creationist ministry "Answers in Genesis" will dedicate a 47-acre site to erect a massive Creation Museum containing 70 life-size dinosaur models that depict the huge animals as living alongside man.

"The Bible can offer a better explanation of the history of the dinosaurs," the ministry said.


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