August 4, 2011

Dinosaurs rock the hall

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment at 2:48 am by dinaheng

Incredible creatures roamed the Earth millions of years ago, dominating life on the planet in ways that fascinate us to this day. What were these animals like? What was their world like, and what happened to them?

Amazing skeletons of these prehistoric creatures can now be seen in the newly renovated and expanded Dinosaur Hall of the Natural History  Museum of Los Angeles County, which features more than 300 fossils and 20 mounts of dinosaurs and sea creatures.

Justin Hall, a paleontologist working on a doctorate in integrative and evolutionary biology at the University of Southern California, has been working with the museum on the exhibits for more than a year and will be going on an excavation to Utah soon with Dr. Luis Chiappe, the exhibition’s lead curator, to collect the rest of a dinosaur’s vertebrae that the museum has on display now.

Hall, who teaches human anatomy in the USC Keck School of Medicine, did CT scanning and data reconstruction for all the displays that feature CT work, and helped to to design, build, and modify digital models of parts of the dinosaurs.

His interest is in the evolution of dinosaurs to flight, and while he’s a paleontologist, his  knowledge makes him an expert on human anatomy as well.

“Muscles, nerves and arteries all interact the same way,” Hall says, walking through the galleries designed to explore the lives of dinosaurs, moving from field work to conservation. “There aren’t a lot of research jobs in paleontology, and my research will be on dinosaurs and dinosaur anatomy. So I can give an evolutionary perspective to medical students.”

Hall grew up in Montana, an area where many dinosaur fossils have been discovered.

“Dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago,” Hall explains. “One of the lineages evolved into birds, so technically, birds are considered to be dinosaurs. I want to figure out how they moved, and what they ate. Did flight start by jumping out of trees, or by hopping on the ground and flapping wings?”

The questions are cool to consider and have practical applications as well. Learning about how flight evolved may one day yield potential answers for technical problems with human flight and machinery.

“Why did birds survive, and dinosaurs go extinct?” Hall asks. “It’s thought that 65 million years ago, when an asteroid or comet hit the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, the rapid climate change killed the plants, which killed off a food supply for dinosaurs. There’s a pretty clear correlation between the asteroid and the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. Maybe because birds could fly, the birds could go farther distances to get food and survived.”

Hall’s words made me think of the recent end of the space shuttle program, which now makes U.S. astronauts dependent on the Russians for transportation to the International Space Station. I have no doubt that in the not too distant future, as we deplete our planet’s resources, Mankind’s survival will depend on our ability to take flight beyond this planet. If we are to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs, we must continue to spread our wings in space.

Walking through Dinosaur Hall, it was fascinating to see the huge prehistoric skeleton of a Triceratops, the armor-backed Stegosaurus, the giant marine reptiles, one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimens in the world, and the only baby T. rex in the world on display. While bones from several specimens might be required to construct one skeleton, the finished models are spectacular replicas of life that once walked the Earth.

“For 150 million years, the dinosaur was the dominant animal on the planet, and its bones have been found on every continent,” Hall says. “It’s basic human instinct to want to know more about them. No one’s ever seen them, but if you watch birds, you can see similarities in the movements.”

For the next closest experience, a visit to Dinosaur Hall is a must.

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