Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A day with dinosaurs

In many Hollywood movies, it is not uncommon to find the character of a small boy who is an expert on dinosaurs or at least is fascinated by them. As a child, I was such a boy. My uncle provided me with a supply of dinosaur books, and I grew up like Tim Murphy from Jurassic Park – knowing the names of all the dinosaurs even before I could read them off the books, and eager to show off my knowledge to guests by pointing out the pictures and reeling off the names. Those books were old, of course (I am not so young anymore), and since then our views about dinosaurs have changed considerably. Gone are the pictures of fat sloth creatures with tails resting on the ground. The dinosaurs that today’s kids see in books and movies are fast and agile, and they move with their tails off the ground. But one particular dinosaur’s picture hasn’t changed much over the years.

Stegosaurus. With large scale-like plates along the spine, four deadly spikes at the end of the tail and a brain weighing just 70 grams, this herbivorous giant was one of my favourites. Hardly did I imagine at the time that I would be holding a real Stegosaurus tail spike one day. As I touched the 142 million year old rock, I could see the picture from that childhood book before my eyes. I caressed the white fossil for some time, and then moved on to the full Stegosaurus standing at the other end of the room.

And the stegosaurus is not the only one; the fossils gallery of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has many other dinosaur fossils which have been recovered nearly whole. Among the most famous inhabitants of this gallery are the complete Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Apatosaurus whose tail itself is 41 feet long, an Allosaurus with its last prey, and wooly mammoths, wooly rhinoceroses, sabre toothed tigers and various other creatures from the ice age. The T-Rex was dismantled in 1992-94 from its original upright position (mounted in 1914-15) and remounted in a stalking position according to latest ideas: one leg lifted and tail up in the air. In the four galleries in this floor, there are fossilized turtles, fish, flying dinosaurs, extinct birds and water monsters. In the words of the guide, “This floor has more fossils under one roof than anywhere else in the world, and 97% of all this is real fossil.”

I was visiting AMNH with my friend who has come for a short visit from Kolkata. We had a very tight schedule and the fact that we had lost two hours in the morning due to a missed bus did not help. We had only three hours to see the museum. So we started off with the gallery that we were most interested in – the fossils. We realized an hour and a half later that we would not finish even that floor if we looked at everything closely, so after taking photos and videos of the dinosaur and other fossils, we headed downstairs. And yes, apart from the fossilized skeletons, this floor also has dinosaur eggs, fossil nests and mummified remains of an actual baby mammoth found in Alaska.

We couldn’t see much of the museum after that. However, as we passed through the reptiles and amphibians gallery, the African mammals gallery, the Asian mammals gallery and the North American Mammals gallery, we couldn’t help noticing the infinite care and detail with which each specimen has been mounted. A herd of African elephants in the middle of the two-storied African mammals gallery needs special mention. Also, the life-sized replica of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling of the ocean gallery as if frozen mid-jump really takes the breath away. The last item that we saw was a piece of a giant redwood trunk showing growth rings from 550 AD till 1894 when it was cut.

Our visit was too short and grossly incomplete. I will go back to visit the museum again as soon as I find the time. However, that excitement of seeing the T-Rex skeleton in the stalking position for the first time won’t be there in subsequent visits. So I decided to write about this while the experience is still fresh.