Linda Crampton is a writer and experienced science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.
The Value of Life-Sized Dinosaur Models
Dinosaurs are fascinating organisms to explore. Recent versions of Vancouver’s annual fair at the Pacific National Exhibition have had an interesting display of life-sized dinosaur models. Many of these models have been animatronic. Although one or two popular dinosaurs are always present in a display, such as a Tyrannosaurus rex one, the other models are new each year. This article is based on my latest visit to the fair, which had a “Dinosaurs Around the World” exhibit. It includes photos of the models and facts about the real-life animals.
When animals have become extinct, models and illustrations based on the latest discoveries are probably the best way for the public to examine and appreciate them. I’ve seen several dinosaur displays at the fair and am always impressed by the fact that that the models incorporate recent discoveries about the animals. A life-sized or nearly life-sized model of a dinosaur can be educational to examine, and the information board beside each model is often useful to read.
The PNE Fair in Vancouver
All of the photos in this article were taken by myself or my sister during a trip to the fair at the PNE, or the Pacific National Exhibition. The fair was very enjoyable, but the crowd was limited in size as the recovery from the coronavirus continued. In addition, the photos were taken in the morning. The afternoon was busier.
What Are Fossils?
Scientists learn about dinosaurs by discovering fossils and studying them. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the definition of fossil is a “remnant, impression, or trace of an animal or plant of a past geologic age that has been preserved in Earth’s crust.” It’s important to note the word “preserved”.
A fossil is not completely identical to the structure found in the living organism. As might be expected, being covered by other materials causes changes to occur due to chemical reactions, pressure, and time. Nevertheless, fossils can be very useful. Despite the processes that have occurred over time, evidence about the structure of an item in the living animal may remain.
Some of the features that dinosaur researchers are investigating include:
- fossilized bones
- feather impressions in rock
- quill knobs on the body where feathers might have been attached
- fossilized soft tissue, such as patches of skin
- preserved melanosomes (cell organelles containing pigment)
Dinosaurs disappeared around 66 million years ago, except for the line that evolved into birds. It shouldn’t be thought that dinosaurs were failures because they no longer exist. Fossil evidence indicates that they survived for 165 million years before their extinction. In addition, some scientists consider today’s birds to be a type of dinosaur.
Many dinosaur models on display are grey, but colour is added to some of them as more evidence about their features is being discovered. The colours for a particular model may or may not be completely accurate, but at least they let people know that the animals weren’t all grey.
Life-Sized Models of the Animals
Some dinosaurs were huge. In many cases, the models in the displays that I’ve seen are life-sized. I’ve noticed for some of the larger dinosaurs the creators have used the excuse that they are showing an immature animal, which allows them to create a smaller model. Many of the models that I’ve seen go through animated sequences and make sounds. At least some of the major companies that create large dinosaur models have a scientific advisor who is involved in research related to the animals.
The animal descriptions below are based on the discoveries by scientists. There is a lot more to learn about each group, however. It’s possible that some of the ideas about the typical structure and behaviour of the animals are not completely correct or are even wrong. Hopefully, future discoveries will confirm or clarify the ideas about the animals.
Dinosaurs lived in the Mesozoic era and in all three periods within this era: the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cenozoic. According to the U.S. National Parks Service, the Triassic lasted from 251.9 million years ago (mya) to 201.3 mya, the Jurassic from 201.3 mya to 145 mya, and the Cretaceous from 145 mya to 66 mya. Other sources give almost the same data.
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Body Structure and Life
Austroraptor lived in Argentina in the late Cretaceous period. Dinosaurs are believed to have become extinct at the end of this period, except for the line that gave rise to birds. Austroraptor was a bipedal and feathered animal. The species had a long snout and short forelegs. On the other hand, the weight-bearing hind legs are large. The animal was a predator. The sickle or hook on a foot can be seen in the photo above. The orange colour of the model is a reminder that some dinosaurs may have been colourful animals.
The feathers of some dinosaurs (including some of Austroraptor’s) are believed to have been shaped like filaments and may have superficially resembled hairs. They look like hairs on the models, but there are believed to be structural differences between filamentous feathers and hair. Though both are made of keratin, the evidence obtained so far suggests that the chemical exists in slightly different forms in each group. Dinosaur feathers contain beta-keratin, like those of today’s birds. Mammalian hair contains alpha-keratin.
Caution Is Needed
One point to note is that often multiple species of a dinosaur genus existed. (The genus is the first part of the scientific name and the species the second.) It’s possible that some discoveries apply to only one species in a particular genus.
Protoceratops belongs to the same group of animals as Triceratops but lived earlier in time. (I’ve discussed the latter animal in a previous article.) Like Triceratops, Protoceratops had a structure called a frill at the back of its head.
The genus lived in the Cretaceous period from 74 to 70 mya. It inhabited China and Mongolia and was herbivorous. Its back limbs were more developed than its front ones, reflecting the fact that it evolved from a bipedal ancestor. The longer hind legs gave the back of the animal an arch, which can be seen in the model above. The frill is thought to have been used as a display to other members of the species.
In 2011, a nest containing the remains of multiple young members of the species was discovered. Scientists say that this suggests that the species may have cared for its young, which is an interesting thought. It would be wonderful to know more about the daily life of dinosaurs.
Minmi paravertebra belonged to a group of animals known as ankylosaurs, which were classified in the class Sauropsida. It was given its genus name because the first fossils were found near Minmi Crossing in Queensland, Australia. The illustration in the Natural History Museum reference below shows it as a light brown animal with the same colour as the model’s head in the illustration above. I’ve discovered no evidence that the animal was green, though there may be some. As in the Austroraptor model, the appearance of the PNE model is a nice reminder that at least some dinosaurs may have been colourful animals.
Like most ankylosaurs, Minmi paravertebra was a herbivore. The tough outer covering and the armour of ankylosaurs gave them good protection from predators. The Australian Museum says that the animal also had belly armour. Researchers have discovered that the spine of the species has an interesting feature. There were ossified rods of tendons called paravertebrae along the backbone. These may have been used for muscle attachment and may mean that the animal was a fast runner. The museum says that it had unusually long legs for ankylosaurs.
These dinosaurs had enormous skulls lined with up to sixty seven-inch-long, serrated teeth and could generate bite forces up to 8,000 pounds!
— Information board accompanying the T. rex model
The Tyrannosaurus rex model in the display was smaller than life size but still interesting to see. I’ve seen a bigger version at the PNE created by another company. In real life, T. rex is one of the largest dinosaurs that is known today. According to the American Museum of Natural History, the animal was up to forty feet long and up to twelve feet high at the hip. It would be taller if the height of the distance to the tip of the head was measured.
T. rex was a North American dinosaur that lived in the late Cretaceous. Its remains have been found in the western parts of the United States and in the province of Alberta in Canada. Scientists say that the animal was carnivorous based on its sharp and serrated teeth and fossilized stomach contents. It likely swallowed its food whole instead of chewing it. The animal is believed to have had a maximum lifespan in the late twenties.
Interestingly, although the species was a successful predator, the American Museum of Natural History says that scientists think that it was a slow runner. It’s possible that new discoveries and new technology will give give us a better idea about the life of T. rex and other dinosaurs.
Spinosaurus belonged to a group of dinosaurs sometimes known as “sail-backed” ones. The sail contained spines. Remains of the animal have been found in Africa and Egypt. It lived from 100 to 94 million years ago in the Cretaceous period. The animal was longer than Tyrannosaurus, though it wasn’t as tall. Like the latter animal, it was bipedal.
Spinosaurus spent at least some of its life swimming in water. Its remains tell scientists that its body was adapted for catching fish. Its skull was long and narrow. Its nostrils were located nearer to its eyes than the end of its snout, which would have enabled it to get more of its body under the surface of the water. It also had straight and conical teeth, which was a feature of fish-eating dinosaurs.
The sail may often have been visible in the air when the animal was hunting near the surface of a body of water. Some scientists suspect that it may have acted like a warning sign telling creatures that could see it to stay out of the way and allow the dinosaur to hunt in the area without competition.
Hadrosaurs are sometimes referred to as duck-billed dinosaurs due to flat bones in their snouts. They are classified in the family Hadrosauridae and lived during the late Cretaceous period. The skin impressions that have been discovered indicate that the animals had scales and not feathers. Many hadrosaurs had crests on their head, such as the one above.
The animals were herbivores, They travelled in large herds and used their “bill” to cut through tough plants. There is some debate about whether they were predominantly browsers or grazers.
Scientists from the University of Alberta has discovered an interesting fact about the dinosaurs. Herbivorous dinosaurs may have needed protection from carnivorous ones. Some developed sharp and protective spines on their surface or multiple thick bumps, which acted like armour. Hadrosaurs lacked these adaptations. By using “digital modelling techniques and muscle insertion clues from skeletons”, the Alberta scientists have discovered that the species was likely a fast runner. They say that a particular predator may have been faster, but it likely lacked the endurance of a hadrosaur.
According to London’s Natural History Museum, the word “kentrosaurus” means “spiky lizard”. The animal belonged to the armoured dinosaur group and is classified in the family Stegosauridae. The members of this family were bulky, covered with protective plates and spikes, and may have been quadrupedal as shown in the model, though there is some debate about this.
An adult Kentrosaurus was around five metres in length, so the model shows approximately its real size. The species lived in Tanzania around 150 to 155 million years ago, which was in the late Jurassic period. It had a herbivorous diet. It may have stood on its hind legs to reach high plants and perhaps on other occasions.
Leaellynasaura amicagraphica lived in Australia in the early Cretaceous period. It was a herbivore. The regular pattern and colours on the model above look unnatural to me. Model creators have a difficult job, however. Scientists know that not all dinosaurs were grey, so the creators want to indicate this, even if just a patch of skin is evidence of colour in a particular species.
According to the Australian Museum, the species had large eye sockets. In addition, the endocast (a 3D representation of the brain cavity) suggests that the optic lobes of the brain were large. These factors suggest that vision was important in the animal’s life. The study of the species is a good example of how modern technology can give us clues about an ancient animal’s life. As technology improves, we may get an even better idea about the life of dinosaurs.
Neovenator remains have been found on the Isle of Wight in England. The animal was around seven metres long. It was bipedal and a carnivore. The animal lived in the early Cretaceous period.
The model is accurate in showing the long nostril of the animal in front of the eye. Complex canals have been discovered in the animal’s snout, which may have been especially sensitive to certain stimuli. The situation reminds us that although dinosaurs lived long ago, the features of some of them were complex.
Readers may have noticed that the sign in the photo above says “Welcome to Pangea”. The country references in this article refer to the current state of the Earth. In the distant past, some land masses were joined. Pangea was a supercontinent made of areas that are separate today.
Heterodontosaurus was a small and mostly herbivorous dinosaur that lived in the Jurassic period. It was about three feet long. Its forelimbs ended in digits that looked quite similar to human fingers. The “hands” were able to grab, pick up, and hold items. The animal is believed to have moved mostly on two feet, thought it may have been quadrupedal at times.
The animal’s genus name refers to its three different types of teeth. Small and sharp teeth were located at the front of the upper jaw. Next came large tusks in the upper and lower jaw. The third teeth type was located in the cheek and resembled our molars. The animal may have had filamentous hair along its back and the top of its tail. Though this isn’t certain yet, the model creators decided to include the filaments.
It may be tempting to look at the features of this species and conclude that it’s related to mammals and us, but scientists say that based on their current knowledge this isn’t the case. Mammals evolved from a different group of reptiles.
Massospondylus was native to South Africa. London’s Natural History Museum says that an adult was four metres long and weighed 70 kg. As can be seen from the reconstruction, the animal had a long neck and tail. Its head was small, and its body was relatively slender compared to that of many dinosaurs. It lived in the early Jurassic period.
The animal ate both plants and animals. Some researchers have raised the possibility that it was bipedal, but the scientific advisor of the model company seems to have thought that it was a quadrupedal animal.
The dinosaur is notable because in 1976 a nesting site of the genus was discovered in a park in South Africa. The area wasn’t investigated in detail until many years later. At that time, multiple nests and multiple embryos were discovered. The area appears to have been a communal Massospondylus nesting site.
The dinosaur group was very successful. There is still some doubt about why many of them became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period. The two leading ideas are described below.
Possible Causes of Dinosaur Extinction
66 million years ago, a large asteroid collided with the Earth. The collision cause a large amount of debris to enter the atmosphere and travel through it. The darkening skies interfered with plant growth, since plants require light for photosynthesis. Dinosaurs and other animals that ate plants as well as the ones that ate the herbivores died.
Scientists don’t argue that the above scenario happened, but some think another factor was responsible for the large-scale elimination of dinosaurs from the Earth. This factor was massive volcanic eruptions, which could also have darkened the environment.
The dinosaurs that evolved to create today’s birds survived. Perhaps they could escape the troubled areas by flying away and finding safer places that still contained the food that they needed.
Discovering More About the Animals
Learning about dinosaurs is a fascinating but sometimes inexact science. Some conclusions about their features seem obvious, but some are changed as more discoveries are made, Hopefully, we will learn more about dinosaur species soon.
One problem that might occur is that as time progresses, it may be harder to find dinosaur remains or fossils. On the other other hand, as technology improves, it may be easier to find them and to investigate their significance. I hope the latter statement is true. Dinosaurs are a fascinating group of animals. It would be wonderful to discover more about them.
- Geologic timescale from the National Parks Service
- Learning about dinosaurs from the Natural History Museum (This website also has information about some of the dinosaurs that I’ve described.)
- Facts about Austroraptor from the Smithsonian Magazine
- Protoceratops facts from the Encyclopedia Britannica
- Information about the minmi from the Australian Museum
- Answers to questions about Tyrannosaurex rex from the American Museum of Natural History (This website also has information about other dinosaurs,)
- An article about Spinosaurus from the Encyclopedia Britannica
- Hadrosaur discoveries from the University of Alberta
- A hadrosaur from Canada from Livescience
- Leaellynasaura information from the Australian Museum
- Neovenator neurovasculature and other facts from Palaeocasts
- Facts about Heterodontosaurus from Britannica for Kids (The article is written at a level that is suitable for adults as well as children.)
- A Massospondylus nesting site from PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science)
- Possible causes of dinosaur extinction from ScienceDaily
© 2022 Linda Crampton