When di­nosaurs roamed Mel­bourne

A just-opened ex­hi­bi­tion cel­e­brates the life and times of the an­i­mals that once ruled the earth

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KER­RIN O’SULLIVAN

WHEN di­nosaurs were hun­gry, which species ate veg­eta­bles and which pre­ferred meat? And which lot ate any­thing, any­time?

What was on the menu for these beasts of the pre­his­toric age is just one as­pect of Ex­plore-asaurus, a new ex­hi­bi­tion at Mu­seum Vic­to­ria’s Science­works at Mel­bourne’s Spotswood. Ex­plore-a-saurus also has a fo­cus on how we know what we know, a hands-on demon­stra­tion of the ways in which palaeon­tol­o­gists go about their work, learn­ing how di­nosaurs lived.

How big were they? How fast? How did di­nosaurs care for their lit­tle ones? All around me, through an in­ter­ac­tive sort of di­nosaur crime scene in­ves­ti­ga­tion, pri­mary school stu­dents are test­ing the forensic meth­ods used by sci­en­tists. The tools of trade of the palaeon­tol­o­gist are at their fin­ger­tips, and they’re tak­ing to this de­tec­tive work with zeal.

The green­ish hue of the mu­seum’s light­ing al­most con­vinces me I have trav­elled back to pre­his­toric times and landed in an an­cient glade of for­est ferns. The first di­nosaur I en­counter ac­cen­tu­ates this sense of time warp.

Stand­ing in a bracken-edged pool is a 21m-long apatosaurus — or at least a rear­ing an­i­ma­tronic ver­sion of the same. Weigh­ing 25 tonnes and with a long and leath­ery neck, it’s no sur­prise a baby apatosaurus would have hatched out of an egg the size of a foot­ball.

Across the way, and weigh­ing a pal­try two tonnes, is the duck­billed ma­iasaura (‘‘good mother lizard’’ in Greek). This one is look­ing af­ter her ba­bies, tend­ing a nest of mud and stone lay­ered with rot­ting veg­e­ta­tion.

I spin a turntable to ex­am­ine fos­silised in­sects in am­ber un­der a mi­cro­scope. Close by are pen­cils to rub on pa­per over rocks, ar­tis­ti­cally trac­ing the del­i­cate out­lines of fos­sil plant im­pres­sions.

In­side a model di­nosaur skull, one of the stu­dents mea­sures her strength against the power of a Tyran­nosaurus rex jaw, her face alight with cu­rios­ity. Fur­ther along, fifth graders don blackand-white striped smocks and cam­ou­flage them­selves against a ze­bra mu­ral, ad­mir­ing their dis­guise in a mir­ror op­po­site.

Over in a gi­ant pit, a team of po­ten­tial palaeon­tol­o­gists shifts and sifts sand, painstak­ingly us­ing brushes to ex­pose buried fos­sils: a back­bone here, a claw print there.

A cu­ri­ous trum­pet­ing roar leads me to a group con­nect­ing PVC tubes through which they play­fully pump air to cre­ate an orches­tra of di­nosaur calls; it’s a won­der­ful bel­low­ing that echoes through the build­ing. Ev­ery­one is ab­sorbed in some­thing, from the stu­dent peep­ing through the eye sock­ets of a Ter­ato­phoneus at what it might see in the wild to a pre-schooler watch­ing mock di­nosaur eggs hatch.

My favourite mo­ment is the pneu­matic white puff of powder that mim­ics the ef­fect of an as­ter­oid col­lid­ing with the Earth — which is one the­ory about why di­nosaurs be­came ex­tinct.

The age of di­nosaurs may have been eons ago but this ex­hi­bi­tion has no dusty dis­plays. In fact, young vis­i­tors will surely be as cap­ti­vated as stu­dents and adult vis­i­tors by the feel of a pre­his­toric land­scape, the size and re­al­ism of the di­nosaurs and the haunt­ing di­nosaur calls.

As I exit, I meet an an­i­ma­tronic Mut­tabur­rasaurus, a di­nosaur whose skele­ton was dis­cov­ered near Mut­taburra in Queens­land. Mov­ing its mas­sive body, I learn not only what these di­nosaurs looked like but how they sounded and what they ate. If all that makes you hun­gry, there’s al­ways the Science­works cafe. I sug­gest you hold back on the bron­tosaurus burger jokes. Ker­rin O’Sullivan was a guest of Mu­seum Vic­to­ria.

MU­SEUM VIC­TO­RIA/BEN­JAMIN HEALLEY

A mu­seum staff mem­ber in­spects an an­i­ma­tronic di­nosaur

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