If “Jurassic Park” and a gigaplexful of less artful sci-fi movies have taught us anything, it’s that messing around with dinosaur eggs never ends well.
So it’s probably understandable to feel a tiny twinge of trepidation about “Hatching the Past,” a traveling exhibit that runs through Sept. 16 at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, 900 Las Vegas Blvd. North.
The exhibit features more than 100 dinosaur eggs and dinosaur embryos and interactive activities that include a simulated fossil dig, a play area where kids can dress like dinosaurs and tend their own dinosaur egg nests, pod-like chairs from which kids can “hatch” from eggs, and even a “petting zoo” equipped with models of diminutive dinosaurs.
As they enjoy the displays and activities, viewers will find themselves doing something they probably never have had reason to do before: Imagine these fearsome creatures of fiction and fact as vulnerable baby animals raised, in some cases, by caring moms in dinosaur communities.
Marilyn Gillespie, Las Vegas Natural History Museum executive director, says “Hatching the Past” is a perfect fit for the museum — which, by the way, also maintains its own collection of dinosaur-related materials — because “we love dinosaurs anytime, and the kids always love dinosaurs.”
While the exhibit offers great educational content for both kids and adults, she adds, “our younger visitors will love this because it’s interactive, and in a fun way.”
Why do dinosaurs strike such a strong chord with children? “I think it’s because of their size,” Gillespie says.
“Obviously, not all dinosaurs were big. Some were small. But I think it’s their size, and because they’re so big they have a tendency to, maybe, be scary, but there’s a mysterious element to them because they’re all gone. So, in a way, maybe it’s like a monster you don’t really have to be afraid of.”
Gillespie speaks from personal experience.
“I grew up in a small town in New Mexico. There were no museums,” she says. “And my grandparents lived in Los Angeles, so every year I got to go to the L.A. County natural history museum, where they just have a fabulous display of dinosaurs. I fell in love with it and never got over it.”
“Hatching the Past” includes displays of actual dinosaur eggs, as well as recreations of dinosaur eggs and skeletons. Dinosaur eggs “come in different shapes and sizes,” Gillespie says. “Some of them were oval, some of them were elongated.”
Some eggs were almost delicate and some were thick and tough, and the thickest egg ever discovered — which looks like a cross between an undersized soccer ball and an oversized bocce ball — is included in the exhibit. Gillespie says dinosaur eggs have been found all over the world, sometimes as part of paleontological digs, other times by accident.
Still, not everything that resembles a dinosaur egg is a dinosaur egg, and many naturally occurring objects — rocks and geodes, for example — easily can fool the layman.
“We’ve actually had people come in with rocks, saying, ‘This is a dinosaur egg,’ ” Gillespie says. “Sorry, it’s not. I go, ‘Maybe it’s a prehistoric potato, but it’s not a dinosaur egg. Sorry.’ ”
Dinosaur eggs can offer scientists clues about how dinosaurs lived. Gillespie notes that fossils often are found in isolation, after having been transported away from where an animal died by scavengers, rivers or other forces. In such cases, a paleontologist “may find a bone or whatever. Those tell us a lot about the individual animal.”
But, other times, fossils are found in assemblages that contain not just one animal’s entire skeleton, but the skeletons of other animals, too. Those, Gillespie says, give scientists “more of a glimpse of how an animal lived.”
One display in the exhibit is of the fossilized skeletons of several baby dinosaurs preserved next to a large adult skull. That several animals apparently nested together with an adult suggests that this particular type of dinosaur cared for its babies after birth, in contrast to, say, a sea turtle that lays its eggs, returns to the sea and lets its hatchlings fend for itself.
Also, Gillespie says, “all of them are facing the same way, so this is just speculation, but the disaster (that killed them) comes from (that) way.”
On a more emotional level, viewing such an assemblage makes the unfortunate dinosaurs seem more human, somehow, evoking the same sort of sadness we’d probably feel if we were to view the fossilized remains of prehistoric puppies or kittens.
The exhibit also reveals that the term “dinosaur” includes a wildly diverse roster of creatures.
“Every niche that animals fill today, at one time dinosaurs were filling those niches,” Gillespie says. “They weren’t just lone, solitary creatures. They lived in herds. They migrated. They hunted in packs. They tended — some of them, not all of them — to their young.”
While the exhibit’s real dinosaur eggs are protected in glass cases, viewers can touch one actual fossil: The smooth tibia of a hadrosaur, a duck-billed herbivore from the Cretaceous period.
“All dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago,” Gillespie says. “Most of the eggs they’ve found have been from the Cretaceous, which is the last era of the dinosaurs.”
Augmenting the traveling displays are materials from the Las Vegas Natural History Museum’s own collection, including a collection of birds and bird nests.
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.