The American Museum of Natural History has a new occupant — one so big it has a room of its own, which can hardly contain it.
We like big and we like to have it all.
The American Museum of Natural History’s newest resident is on display today — a 122-foot-long titanosaur, discovered in 2014 in Argentina, one of the largest dinosaurs ever found and the biggest the museum has ever displayed.
Scientists estimate that it weighed about 70 tons when alive. Its ribcage is the size of an Access-a-Ride, and head to tail the skeleton stretches a city block — a long one.
There is something awe inspiring in the heft of the bones, the dramatic play of the lights.
But it’s not real . . . not even the bones.
No wool is being pulled over an unsuspecting public’s eyes.
The skeleton on display is a replica, constructed of lightweight fiberglass 3-D prints. Everything was recreated to the specifications of the bones found in the Patagonian desert — 84 of which were recovered, approximately 75 percent of the total skeleton. This is the world premiere of the cast, which could be replicated and put on display elsewhere.
Fossils of this size would be far too heavy to display — in this case one of the larger bones might be 1,200 pounds, vs. the 100-pound cast, according to Peter May, president of Research Casting International, the firm that built the model.
Michael Novacek, provost of science and curator for the paleontology division at the museum, says that 80 to 90 percent of the museum’s collection are original bones. In the fourth-floor dinosaur exhibits, “most that you see are original,” he says, including the famous Tyrannosaurus rex.
But the titanosaur is so big that it would have to be displayed as a cast, or simply as a collection of bones. Which would hardly be our picture of a dinosaur at all.
Children before dinosaurs
At a preview yesterday, one visitor acknowledged that he was there to satisfy the child in him. There were real children zipping around, prefiguring the hoards that will traipse through the exhibition hall in the coming weeks, staring down the remains of this unworldly creature resurrected from the ground.
“We want to know everything about dinosaurs: What colors they were, what they ate, how they reproduced, and what they did with those horns, crests, and plates,” a display near the titanosaur reads.
Scientists are continually searching to fill in the blanks. Along the way, there’s plenty of room for our imaginations to flesh them out. Well-arranged bones help us do that.
It’s a continual march to a truer picture.
Novacek notes that 15 years ago, the classic pose for dinosaur displays was to have their tails dragging on the ground. Now we know that wasn’t accurate. Even the famous rearing barosaurus in the museum’s sweeping Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall lobby (itself a cast) probably isn’t accurate. The rearing wouldn’t have been typical posture.
Roosevelt himself is or at least was a guiding figure for the museum — beyond the lobby, which is New York state’s official memorial for him, his spirit of conservation lives on in the North American dioramas, depicting many areas that he made into national parks (no, he didn’t shoot the animals himself).
Part of conservation is showing the public the beauty, grandeur and adventure of a natural world with which they might be little acquainted, or not acquainted with at all, when it comes to dinosaurs.
For what they can’t go see themselves, they’ll at least have a replica — a museum.
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