'When dinosaurs roamed Melbourne'
The Weekend Australian 18 June 2011

A just-opened exhibition celebrates the life and times of the animals that once ruled the earth by 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 those beasts of the prehistoric age is just one aspect of Explore-a-saurus, 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 paleontologists 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, a group of primary school students are testing the forensic methods used by scientists. The tools of trade of the paleontologist are at their fingertips, and they're taking to their 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 only accentuates this sense of time warp.

Standing in a bracken-edged pool is a 21 m-long apatosaurus, or at least a quivering, rearing, head-shaking animatronic version of the same. Weighing 25 tonnes and with a long 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 duck-billed 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 black-and-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 paleontologists shift and sift 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 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 or whiffs of camphor. In fact, young visitors will surely be as captivated as students and adults by the feel of a prehistoric landscape, the size and realism of the dinosaurs and the haunting honking of dinosaur calls.

As I exit, I meet an animatronic Muttaburrasaurus, Australia's world famous dinosaur skeleton 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 café. I suggest you hold back on the Brontosaurus Burger jokes.

© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan