Dinosaurs still on a rampage through our imaginations

06/06/2014 4:36 PM

06/06/2014 4:36 PM

In December Jen Bascombe will get married in front of family and friends.

And a 40-foot Tyrannosaurus rex.

The 30-year-old Overland Park woman and her fiance are excited to tie the knot beside the signature exhibit at the new Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park.

But … why get married in front of a replica of an enormous dinosaur?

“It’s more what it stands for,” said Bascombe, a student at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville. “The history, the science and bringing that information to the next generation. We both love science, and we wanted to start our marriage with a mutual passion.”

After disappearing 65 million years ago, dinosaurs are stronger than ever.

In addition to visiting the museum, which opened last month, you can see them at the movies — “Godzilla,” the upcoming dino-themed “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Dinosaur 13,” next summer’s “Jurassic World” and, if you use the term “dinosaur” loosely, next week’s “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

You can cheer for them in a live stage show,“Walking With Dinosaurs — The Arena Spectacular,” which returns to the Sprint Center in November.

You can have fun with them at amusement parks: A park featuring 31 animatronic dinosaurs, including a 90-foot Argentinosaurus reportedly visible from the Empire State Building 10 miles away, recently opened in Secaucus, N.J.

The latest offerings just add more prehistoric punch to the already rampaging dinosaur herd.

There are dinosaur cartoons, dinosaur cereals and dinosaur fruit snacks. At The Legends you can dine with animatronic dinosaurs at the T-Rex Cafe.

A variety of dinosaur-themed apps are on the market to educate and entertain.

“Ever since dinosaurs have been discovered they’ve been been a classic draw,” said David Burnham, vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum. “The first dinosaur to go on exhibit was a duck-billed dinosaur found in New Jersey in 1858. People lined up to see it.”

KU’s Natural History Museum displays specimens from a Triceratops, Camarasaur and an Apatatasaurus. And it plans to open a new exhibit of T. rex fossils by the fall.

Why are we still so deep into dinosaurs?

“They’re monsters!“ Burnham said. “They’re monsters in our mind that have become real.”

We come by our fascination naturally.

“There are myths and legends that predate the discovery of dinosaurs,” Burnham said. “The stories of there being giants in our culture go back to people finding mastodon bones and thinking they were humans who existed who were giants. That created stories and myths that ranged from dragons and sea monsters to griffins and the giants in ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’”

What’s different now, he said, is what we can do with them.

“We have the technology now, and Hollywood has jumped on it. We can make things look real on the digital landscape (and) animate them as if they are really living. And we just get better and better at it.”

The Museum at Prairiefire offers an interactive TV screen where guests can watch full-color dinosaurs appear to walk around them.

“Pretty soon,” Burnham said, “you’re going to be able to reach out and touch one. Which is a lot better than if they reached out and touched you. But the point is, they’ve come alive for us.”

In 2000, when the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago unveiled Sue, the largest T. rex ever found, the exhibit drew more than 10,000 visitors on its first day. (Sue is the subject of the documentary “Dinosaur 13” coming later this year.)

Which brings us to this.

“There’s one more component to the present (dino-mania), and it is treasure hunting,” said Burnham. “If you find a T. rex you could be a millionaire.”

The Field Museum bought Sue for $8.36 million.

Payday or not, dinosaurs hook us when we’re young.

“Children do have fears of monsters and things that lurk in the dark … but yet they are not afraid of dinosaurs,” said Joy Dodd, a Lenexa preschool teacher. “On some level they understand that dinosaurs are extinct, and the fact that there are no dinosaurs now, and there never will be any more, is enough to let them love them.

“Plus dinosaurs are beautiful and absolutely fascinating. They are big beyond comprehension, and yet there were some that were as small as mice. … Another fascinating thing about dinosaurs is that they are equally interesting to girls as they are to boys. There are very few subjects that equally captivate both genders like that.”

On a recent day dozens of children learned about dinosaurs at at the Museum at Prairiefire. The relatively small museum is affiliated with the enormous American Museum of Natural History in New York. The dinosaur replica in the Great Hall features information about Barnum Brown, the KU-trained paleontologist who first discovered a T. rex. Among other attractions, the museum has a few dinosaur bones and fossils, a “dig pit” for children and various interactive and educational dinosaur-themed stations.

Uli Sailer Das, the museum’s executive director, thinks she knows why dinosaurs are so hot right now — with both children and adults.

“It’s a combination of things,” she said. “One is that we’re still finding out new things. So a lot of questions that we have about them are answered over time, and new questions emerge. So it’s a story that is constantly evolving, which I think is thrilling.

“Another aspect to it is the mystery of the unknown. Because we know just enough to start imagining what they were like and how they behaved. But we don’t know everything. That really inspires people, and that is why dinosaurs have such a grip on us and on our imaginations.”

Just listen to Robert DePalma, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History.

“I am absolutely enthralled with the paleoworld,” he said. “And any opportunity I have to bring that to life, I want to do it. Because really, being a paleontologist is the closest thing to being a time traveler. And whenever we involve the public in that through either an exhibit or a TV program, we are extending that capability to them so they can enjoy it, too.”

And when it comes to dinosaurs, there is always more to enjoy.

“The last chapter has not been written,” DePalma said. “The book has not been closed. Every single season that someone such as (KU’s) Robert Burnham or I lead an expedition into the field, we make discoveries that just tweaks the story that much more. It’s incredibly exciting.”

To reach James A. Fussell, call 816-234-4460, or email jfussell@kcstar.com.

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