Yesterday, Nizar Ibrahim and National Geographic made a tremendous splash with their long-awaited announcement of a new Spinosaurus specimen. Spinosaurus is a widely recognized and beloved dinosaur (particularly among what one might call the dinosaur fandom community), but paradoxically it is known from only the scrappiest of fossil remains. What’s more, the holotype specimen is long gone – destroyed in the bombing of Munich during World War II. No doubt the enigmatic nature of Spinosaurus is a major part of its appeal. At any rate, the new paper by Ibrahim and colleagues describes the never-before-seen hindlimbs and pelvis of Spinosaurus, and proposes that the dinosaur’s anatomy – and behavior – were far more extreme than previously assumed. The new specimen reveals that Spinosaurus had narrow hips and legs barely longer than its arms. This was not an animal built for running on land, and a quadrupedal posture is not out of the question. What’s more, Spinosaurus limb bones are surprisingly dense for a theropod, not unlike the heavy bones of seals and early whales. Ibrahim and colleagues paint a picture of Spinosaurus as an animal that was at least as at-home in the water as it was on land.
The news has provoked the usual cycle of rampant speculation among dino fans, dismissal of sensationalism by some professionals, and even well-reasoned, evidence-based criticism. After the fervor dies down, we can assess whether this hypothesis holds water. In the meantime, though, I must applaud the tremendously impressive show National Geographic has put on. As part of the media roll-out that started yesterday afternoon, National Geographic has prepared both a television special and a traveling exhibit revolving around Spinosaurus. Some might scoff at all the hype over a partial skeleton, but I’d call this science outreach at its best, put on by some of the most experienced folks in the business.
“Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous” opened this morning at the National Geographic Explorer’s Hall in Washington, DC, and in this post I’d like to share my initial impressions. Visitors approaching from M Street are greeted by a life-sized Spinosaurus sculpture, posed over a half-eaten fish. This superb model was produced by the Italian studio GeoModel, and was apparently over a year in the making. Conceptual art and behind-the-scenes photos can be seen here. I’m not sure if the model has quite the extreme proportions that are proposed in the paper, but it’s not like I actually measured it. Regardless, this is a stunning piece that will be a DC fixture through the end of the year.
Once you’ve gone inside and paid your admission (I remember when this museum was free…oh well), you can enter the Spinosaurus exhibit proper. Interestingly, the exhibit is framed not as a science lesson but as a historical account. The first objects on display are documents and other possessions of Ernst Stromer, the German paleontologist who originally described Spinosaurus in 1915. Passing through a narrow corridor, you’ll see a reconstruction of the Spinosaurus holotype as it was displayed at the Bavarian State Collection in Munich, a Moroccan fossil shop, and even a replica of the cave where a Mysterious Bedouin Stranger led Ibrahim to the new find. Each stop is supplemented by a video mixing talking-head interviews with somewhat silly re-enactments of historic events. I particularly liked Stromer being berated by his Nazi boss.
I thought this method of storytelling was quite clever. By focusing on the role of Spinosaurus in world history, the exhibit can grab the attention of adult visitors that would usually dismiss dinosaurs as kids’ stuff. National Geographic’s shtick has always been presenting stories of intrepid scientists on adventures in distant locales, and there is plenty of that in evidence here. This sort of exoticism is probably a little problematic, but the gorgeous images of the Moroccan desert were clearly having the desired effect on some of my fellow visitors. Usually, I would complain about the over-reliance on long videos, but people seemed to be watching them all the way to the end, so I guess I’ll keep quiet this time.
Once the history lesson is over, the exhibit opens up into a larger display space. This is similar to what was done in “The World’s Largest Dinosaurs” – a narrow entry gallery introduces visitors to the topic at hand and the central questions being discussed, then visitors are freed to look at what they find interesting in whatever order they choose. All in all, this layout is a good compromise between the need to convey a specific educational message and the need to let visitors make the exhibit experience their own.
The star of the show is of course the reconstructed skeleton of Spinosaurus, yet another fantastic display piece by Research Casting International. Check out a time-lapse video of the mount being assembled here. What wasn’t clear from the grainy preview images that were flying around the internet a couple months ago is that the Spinosaurus is actually in a swimming pose. Its legs are posed in mid-paddle, and its head is turned to the right to snag a model sawfish. Above all, the mount is big. So big, in fact, that I couldn’t find anywhere in the gallery where I could photograph it all at once. I’d love to see this thing alongside Sue.
Happily, the exhibit takes the time to acknowledge that the Spinosaurus mount is not only a cast, but a composite of many fossil specimens. There is even a small display showcasing the process by which fossils are scanned and 3-D printed at a consistent scale. It’s great that the exhibit explains the evidence that led to the aquatic Spinosaurus reconstruction, showcasing the process of making and testing a scientific hypothesis.
Around the perimeter of the Spinosaurus gallery are displays of the other paleofauna of the Kem Kem region in Morocco, which Paul Sereno and company have been assembling for many years. There are models of azdarchid pterosaurs and coelocanth fish, as well as a Deltadromeus skeleton and skulls of Carcharodontosaurus and Rugops (all heavily-reconstructed casts). All of these displays explore the question of how so many carnivores could co-exist in one environment. The answer provided is that each predator was specialized to hunt a different kind of prey: Spinosaurus chased fish, Carcharodontosaurus ate big herbivorous dinosaurs and (this will undoubtedly annoy some) Rugops is presented as an obligate scavenger.
I have virtually nothing negative to say about the Spinosaurus exhibit. This is a great story, well told, and I was thoroughly impressed by nearly every part of it. The only thing that might be a sore point for some is that there are very few authentic fossils on display. A single dorsal spine is the only real bone representing Spinosaurus. Nevertheless, the exhibit team has shown precisely how to dramatize the process of scientific discovery, while still making the process transparent and relateable. Bravo.