Move Over, T.Rex
Carnegie Museum of Natural History introduces budding paleontologists to an even bigger predatory dinosaur.
Spiny lumbers onto the stage. She whips around her enormous tail, and using her powerful jaws steals a fish right under the nose of Dr. Dino, her human handler. The kids in the auditorium burst into laughter.
“Spiny, Spiny,” Dr. Dino scolds the hulking Spinosaurus, a ferocious meat-eater that, as it turns out, not only towered over T. rex but is the first known dinosaur built to swim, explaining her penchant for fish. “You’ll get more treats later. I think she’s getting bored. When she gets bored, she likes to hear a nice, loud roar.”
“When I was a kid, I became fascinated by Spinosaurus. It’s so cool to me that our show is introducing a new generation to this amazing dinosaur and the world it lived in.”
- MATT LAMANNA, CARNEGIE MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY PALEONTOLOGIST
Dr. Dino leads the cheer, “Dear Spiny, you are the fiercest predator in all the land.” And soon the children and parents seated inside Gateway Middle School in Monroeville are shouting out to the mighty Spinosaurus in unison.
The fun-loving crowd has a front-row seat for Spinosaurus Encounter!, the new headliner in Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Natural History on the Move program, a sciencemeets- entertainment show that travels to community centers, libraries, and schools around the region, as well as Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
The human legs poking out of the latex costume notwithstanding, the kids suspend disbelief as they watch the life-size juvenile Spinosaurus bring its ancient ecosystem to life in a science-themed assembly, this one sponsored by Monroeville Public Library.
Though she stands about 10 feet tall and measures 15 feet long, with a sail protruding from her hulking back, Spiny has a playful streak. That’s because she was built as a 6-year-old youngster.
Spiny is played with prehistoric panache by Kalie Tomiczek, one of the four handlers of the wearable puppet. By sticking her feet in Spiny’s feet and using bicycle handles to maneuver the mouth and eyes, Tomiczek stomps like a young dinosaur.
“She looks pretty good for a 95-millionyear- old gal,” says Dr. Dino, who is played by Joe Connelly. He then enlists a few volunteers to come up to the stage and play hide-andseek with Spiny.
The kids count, “One-Spinosaurus, two- Spinosaurus, three-Spinosaurus,” as the star of the show hides behind the curtain. A little boy squeals as he runs across the stage and points to one big feature.
“Spiny, your tail gave you away again,” Dr. Dino reports. “She never knows what to do with that tail.”
Despite this playfulness, the Spinosaurus Encounter! is big on pint-sized science, a trademark of Natural History on the Move. With the basic philosophy that “anyone can learn science,” Natural History on the Move reaches nearly 18,000 people a year, says Pam Brutsche Keiper, outreach program manager. Spiny, for example, stomps on the stages at Idlewild and Kennywood parks, bringing natural history lessons to the masses.
What audiences react to is a dinosaur costume made with the scientific know-how of Matt Lamanna, paleontologist and Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s very own dinosaur hunter.
Lamanna explains that Spinosaurus first gained notoriety a century ago when a German scientist unearthed its fossils in Egypt. But the ancient remains were destroyed in an Allied bombing of Munich in 1944, leaving researchers without its fossil record until the recent discovery of new Spinosaurus bones—including a partial skeleton—in Morocco.
While it’s true that Spinosaurus is now the largest known predatory dinosaur—at least eight feet longer than the biggest known T. rex—its size isn’t its only defining feature. What did it say about Spinosaurus, Dr. Dino asks the audience, that various aspects of its body were similar to those of a crocodile, a whale, and a crane? The startling conclusion: Spinosaurus must have lived at least partially in water, making it the first known semi-aquatic dinosaur.
Lamanna—who was a consulting expert on several national TV specials about Spinosaurus—weighed in on the museum’s purchase of the Spinosaurus costume for its Natural History on the Move show. “The first one was clearly based on the Spinosaurus in the Jurassic Park III movie, which is pretty inaccurate,” he recalls. So he asked the designers to make changes, ensuring Spiny would be “scientifically legit.”
In fact, every last detail of the show—down to the kinds of plants used in materials to advertise the assembly—were well researched.
While Lamanna calls the new design “waaaay better and certainly more accurate” than the Hollywood-based costume, the designers couldn’t accommodate every single change.
“Based on the most recent fossil discoveries from Morocco, the hand claws of Spinosaurus were probably almost straight rather than strongly curved,” Lamanna explains. Down the road, an artist may make that tweak along with minor modifications to the animal’s hind feet.
Back in the auditorium, Dr. Dino calls a handful of kids onto the stage, hands them field vests, and addresses them as doctor as he teaches them about an environment that Spiny once inhabited—the Bahariya Oasis in Egypt’s Sahara Desert. It’s a location the museum’s dinosaur hunter knows well, Dr. Dino points out, having prospected there on and off for the last 15 years. While Lamanna and his collaborators have only discovered bits and pieces of Spinosaurus, they did unearth a completely new and gigantic dinosaur species, Paralititan, during their first expedition to the location in 2000.
The kids approach the show’s backdrop of layers of rock, removing sections until they uncover lifelike replicas of a skull bone of a giant fish and a fossil crab—items Lamanna himself found in the ancient ocean where Spiny, believed to be an adept swimmer, once lived.
Dr. Dino comes up with a catchy chant to explain stratigraphy, the study of rock layers and their ages. “New on top. Old on bottom,” he says, explaining that the older fossils are buried deeper within the earth.
He also gives the wide-eyed kids a reason not to pet a dinosaur.
“She almost bit you,” he warns one young volunteer. “Do you have your fingers and toes? You have to watch her every second or she eats everything.”
But this does anything but scare away a crowd filled with spirited dinosaur enthusiasts. With a little prompting from their parents, Jonathon Eisenman, 8, and his friend, Jay Sen, 7, laugh together after the show, reciting the chant they learned about a new word, stratigraphy. “New on top and old on bottom.” The kids share a sense of wonder not lost on Lamanna. “When I was a kid, I became fascinated by Spinosaurus,” he says. “It’s so cool to me that our show is introducing a new generation to this amazing dinosaur and the world it lived in. Who knows, maybe one of these kids will grow up to be the person who answers the many questions we still have about Spinosaurus.”