Local Arts

The Dinosaur King in the Queen City? Charlotte kids might not believe the size of this experience

We think of them as Earth’s biggest losers, going extinct in a fiery snap when an iron mountain tumbled from the heavens and drew a deadly curtain of dust over the globe.

But the age of dinosaurs was one of the greatest gigs life has ever known, a 150-million-year romp (we hominids, by comparison, have been around only 3 million) of claws, talons and tails. Back then, nature uncorked all manner of sinister specimens on earth and at sea, capping the epoch’s collection with the fearsome Tyrannosaur.

Yep, he’s looking at you. Joel English of Flying Fish Exhibits helps set up Discovery Place Science’s new exhibition: “Tyrannosaurs: Meet the Family,” running through Labor Day. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

A squad of them will strut their dazzling stuff this summer at Discovery Place Science in “Tyrannosaurs, Meet the Family,” opening Saturday. It traces the clan from its compact beginnings to the last word in lizardry, the tyrant king Tyrannosaurus rex.

It is hard to explain the fascination that we still hold for dinosaurs, but kids especially love them. They were big, they were loud and nobody ever told them put away their toys. Every summer Discovery Place aims for an exhibition that mixes science with fun, and once again it has hit the sweet spot.

Visitors enter through a tunnel that appears to overlook uptown’s parks – except that the usual laid-back scene is rocked by rapacious dinosaurs running amok, sort of a Jurassic Bearden Park.

Discovery Place created the projection to augment the traveling exhibition, assembled by the Australian Museum in Sydney. Tifferney White, chief learning officer of Discovery Place, said the museum wanted something with a local flavor to orient visitors.

Once inside the show, there’s a collection of skulls mounted like hunting trophies in an explorer’s den and gaping hungrily. They are Tyrannosaurus rex’s ancestral cousins, Appalachiosaurus, Daspletosaurus, Teratophoneus, Tarbosaurus and Albertosaurus (no, it wasn’t discovered by an Albert; yes, it was dug up in the Canadian province of Alberta).

An augmented-reality experience lures small visitors (and a few tall ones) to a screen where cute little reptiles beckon. Pet them and they coo.

But then comes a thump that grows to a stomp, and T. rex roars in to break up the party. Small visitors (and a few tall ones) have been known to dart away shrieking as T. rex goes full tantrum.

Experts think the rex could scoot along at 25 mph, which would make it an effective ambusher. But even for the apex predator, life was hard in those days and relatively short – few lived past 25.

Earth was crawling with dinosaurs until roughly 66 million years ago, with T. rexes popping up near the end of period. An asteroid strike in the Yucatan is believed to have sparked mass extinctions worldwide, though changing climate and continental drift were already stressing the big lizards and wee ground-dwelling critters called mammals were beginning to catch on.

Perhaps the most arresting creature in the exhibition is a model of Velociraptor mongoliensis, who teaches us that not all dinosaurs died.

Let’s not play chicken with this guy: Velociraptor mongoliensis helps teach that the dinosaur line didn’t die out completely. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Velociraptor mongoliensis had birdlike feathers and a smile packed with bowling-pin cutlery. At once savage and stylish, it gives off a strong Keith Richards vibe. It also had wrists like modern chickens’ and a tell-tale wishbone.

Yes, it turns out that dinosaurs are still among us – chirping on your lawn and being served on your Thanksgiving table.

A connection between dinos and birds was first posed in the mid-19th century by British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, a proponent of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories. It wasn’t until the 1970s that paleontologists took up Huxley’s musing and discovered he was right.

Among the hands-on exhibitions are rocky casts of coprolite, otherwise known as dino dung. Even millions of years later, these droppings are ripe with gossip about their creators.

“Poop’s important,” says Robyn Levitan, Discovery Place’s collections manager, responsible for the museums’ 70,000 artifacts. It can tell us the general size of the creature, overall health, diet menu and even the time of day the dino liked to dine by revealing certain veggies in bloom only during particular hours. A tooth poking out of one pile tells us the host was a carnivore, she says.

Fossils in the exhibition are on loan from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and the Australian Museum, the most impressive showing off T. rex’s fist-size teeth.

Bits and pieces are just part of the new "Tyrannosaurs: Meet the Family" exhibition. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

When the public comes dinosaur gazing, it expects a big finish. There is a full-scale T. rex skeleton cast, 14 paces long, tall enough to peer into your upstairs bedroom and looking menacingly annoyed.

On the way out of “Tyrannosaurs,” there is a pit for aspiring paleontologists to flake away soil and uncover fossils. They learn modern dinosaur stalking is a delicate business.

With each brushstroke, grain by grain, they are transported back through the eons, as a distant lizard roars. Even in the age of electrons, it proves one thing: Kids still dig dinos.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

Tyrannosaurs: Meet the Family

Opens: Saturday; runs through Labor Day.

At: Discovery Place Science, 301 N. Tryon St.; 704-372-6261.

General admission to museum and exhibition: $20 adults, $16 children, $3 members.

Also showing at the IMAX theater: “Flying Monsters” with Sir David Attenborough.