Scientists have recreated a prehistoric Chinese forest featuring models of dinosaurs that roamed northeastern China 130 million years ago. The new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History is based entirely on fossil finds and highlights the role of science, art and technology - and also basic barnyard animals - in dinosaur discovery.
The rolling hills of a province in northeastern China are now terraced for farming, but beneath that farmland are clues to a prehistoric world unlike any seen by human eyes - until this week. Some 130 million years after dinosaurs roamed the Liaoning forest, the world has been painstakingly recreated in New York City's American Museum of Natural History.
The sound of the prehistoric forest is one of the few things that has been imagined in this 65 square-meter diorama. The gingko leaves, piney trees and life-sized models of 35 prehistoric animals were created through the marriage of science, art and technology, as every detail, down to the sleeping pose of a dinosaur, is based on scientific findings.
The exhibit is not behind glass or otherwise enclosed, so visitors are eye-to-eye with extinct beasts, feeling as if they've stepped into a Chinese forest 130 million years in the past.
Mark Norell is a paleontologist who has worked in Liaoning, searching for clues to recreate this prehistoric world.
"It's accurate because every single plant, every insect, every organic feature in it actually represents something that has been found as a fossil in northeastern China," he explained, "so the only thing that we had to sort of make up a little bit is what color some the animals were. Even though we know some of theme were patterned, but we know definitely that they were patterned, because we can see that is the soft tissue remains, but we don't know what color they were but we try to be a little conservative in that regard, but nevertheless all the feathers you see, all the weird tail structures you see, is all stuff we found as fossils."
Underneath the gingko trees, a feathered bird-like dinosaur chases on two legs after a large winged insect, the dinosaur's beak-like mouth open to reveal rows of jagged teeth. A sleeping dinosaur tucks its head beneath its arm, much as a modern goose tucks its head beneath its wing.
The museum's curator of paleontology, Michael Novacek, explains that it is necessary to understand birds in order to better understand extinct creatures.
"The reason birds are so important to us is really a fact we weren't so aware of 10, 20 years ago is that birds are living dinosaurs. They're not just related to dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs," he stressed. "They're a branch of dinosaurs, so conveniently enough dinosaurs didn't go completely extinct. One group, the birds, survived."
Scientists study the movements of commonplace turkeys, chickens and ostriches to learn how similarly built dinosaurs would stand or walk. Researchers even created a computer model of a giant chicken to learn more about the movements of the ever popular Tyrannosaurus Rex.
By using high tech imagery, fossils, and the knowledge gained from the biology of barnyard animals, scientists now estimate the giant T-Rex could reach speeds of 16 kilometers per hour, far slower than the more than 70 kilometers per hour previously thought.
These scientific findings are passed along to model designers, such as the creator of a six-foot-long mechanical T-Rex, a highlight of the new exhibit. The menacing skeleton's tail sways and its head bobs as the extinct dinosaur shifts its weight, plodding in place - yet another example of the never-before-seen becoming altogether real when science and technology meet art.