See Kansas Pteranodon and other dinosaurs at new Museum at Prairiefire exhibit

Dinosaurs are so popular because, one, they are just cool, and two, they are glimpses into a past that's hard to imagine.

A traveling exhibit opening Friday at the Museum at Prairiefire combines those elements with dinosaur skeletons and historical artifacts that trace how they helped us understand evolution.

"Modern Dinosaurs?" uses a question mark because science itself evolves from questioning what was once taken for granted.

"That's what this exhibit is about," said curator Angus Carroll. "We discovered dinosaurs. We discovered the Earth is very old. That sets the stage for Charles Darwin. He goes on a voyage. He comes back and goes, 'I've got an idea.' He writes down his idea. And today, in a full circle, dinosaurs are one of our greatest examples of evolution now because birds are dinosaurs."

Bringing the point home are the side-by-side skeletons of a birdlike Ichthyornis - this individual lived in Kansas 90 million years ago - and a modern domesticated chicken.

Along the way kids and adults will enjoy cast dinosaur skeletons molded from the real thing, including a carnivorous Albertosaurus and its Ceratops prey and a Tyrannosaurus rex skull.

Visitors can have their pictures taken alongside the hind leg of giant Apatosaurus.

Hanging overhead is a flying reptile called Pteranodon that was also excavated in Kansas. With a wingspan of 24 feet, it is the largest male specimen ever found.

A dynamic cluster of four dinosaurs shows a scene from real, ancient life instead of the stand-alone nature of most displays. Three Dromaeosauruses (think of the Velociraptors in "Jurassic Park") attacking a larger Pachycephalosaurus like cheetahs on a wildebeest.

"Dinosaurs had to make a living, too," said Carroll.

Actual fossils that visitors can touch include a Triceratops head bone with healed-over claw marks proving the beast had been attacked and yet survived.

There also are touch screens to entertain and educate, including a simulation game for one or two players that illustrates the principle of natural selection.

That dovetails with historical artifacts of scientific advance. They include first editions of Charles Lyell's 1830s "Principles of Geology" and Darwin's 1859 "On the Origin of Species." There are also original reviews of the latter from The Athenaeum magazine of London and The New York Times.

An original 1953 copy of the journal Nature is opened to James Watson's and Francis Crick's first description of DNA as the "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids."

This is the first temporary exhibit at the Museum at Prairiefire, 5801 W. 135th St. in Overland Park, that has not originated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

This one is the result of a collaboration between Carroll, a Darwin expert, and Mike Triebold of Triebold Paleontology Inc., a commercial dinosaur excavation company with clients around the world.

But "Modern Dinosaurs?" does not signal a break between Prairiefire and the American Museum of Natural History.

"There's just a lot of stuff out there," said Terri M. Thompson, director of community engagement for the Museum at Prairiefire.

Admission to "Modern Dinosaurs?", which runs through May 28, is $10 for ages 13 and up and $5 for ages 3-12.

Coincidental to the exhibit is a free panel display on the museum's Sprint Gallery wall that explains how the two historical periods when Kansas was undersea contributed to the geology of the Kansas City area. It was created by Richard Gentile, professor emeritus of geosciences at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and local artist John Babcock.