A stunning exhibition in New York allows visitors to come face-to-face with the king of dinosaurs. Sally Peck dons her headset and steps back in time.
Queuing in a low-lit room, I was startled by the sharp yelp from the hipster in front of me. He ducked in a sort of fancy, basketball-style dodge, whispered "Oh, God!" and then straightened up and somewhat sheepishly shook himself out.
Normally in museums, cries of alarm are about as welcome as a loud conversation in a library. The audience around the cordoned-off area laughed and I pitied him, slightly, as I stepped up for my turn at the American Museum of Natural History's new virtual reality Tyrannosaurus rex experience.
After donning a virtual reality headset, I worked with a team of two others to assemble a skeleton with virtual bones. I built the hind leg with ease, marvelling at the size of each bone, and then, just as my partners finished, the vast museum room in which we had been labouring whirled about and transformed into a realistic, hilly landscape. All was bucolic until that T-Rex we'd assembled became flesh, whipped its tail around, charged after a passing pterodactyl and then lunged towards me, jaws gaping, throat roaring. By creating a panoramic, the virtual reality headset immerses the viewer in the dinosaur's world and gives an excellent sense of the scale of this king of predators; I felt small and, as the sound of the giant lizard's pounding gait hit my ears, rather vulnerable. No wonder the hipster had gasped.
As children, most of us, at some point, loved a dinosaur. I certainly did. But in our youths, these skeletons never quite made the jump to a 3D moving animal. When Jurassic Park came out in 1993, all we really knew was that T-Rex was big and fierce, had a small brain and was carnivorous.
Over the past 25 years, however, scientists working across the fields of biology and geology have taken a new look at dinosaurs to bring them to life, and this exhibition is a culmination of that research. While T-Rex was once thought to be a rare dinosaur, so many fossils and bones have been discovered in recent decades that the sample is now a large one and has allowed Dr Mark Norell, the exhibition's curator, and an international team, to imagine a skinnier, svelte animal with smaller arms than previously suspected.
The exhibition, which opened earlier this month, depicts the life of the ultimate predator from a fluffy, turkey-like hatchling to a giant killer. A full-grown Tyrannosaurus rex stood 3.6m high at the hip, measured about 12m from head to tail and weighed up to eight tonnes. By contrast, the male African bush elephant, the largest living animal on land today, has a similar height to its shoulders (about 3m) and weighs up to six tonnes.
With fairly strong, straight legs, scientists imagine the T-Rex had a similar, plodding gait to the elephant. But the elephant is a vegetarian. Not so the T-Rex, which lived about 68 to 66 million years ago and which scientists suspect had feathers on its head and tail, giving a flamboyant edge to a beast able to clamp its jaws with 3500kg of force.
As much as this exhibition, part of the museum's 150th anniversary celebrations, is an exploration of this particular predator king, it also reveals the methodology of palaeontology: by profiling the evolution of the entire tyrannosaur family — two dozen relatives of the T-Rex — through life-size models, the show explores how scientists draw the conclusions they do. Featuring casts, interactive stations and that thrilling VR experience, this exhibition has a natural home at a museum whose own fossil-hunter, Barnum Brown, made one of the earliest discoveries of a T-Rex skeleton in Hell Creek, Montana, just over a century ago.
For all its modernity, the exhibition also has charmingly old-fashioned interactive displays, such as a magnet puzzle of tyrannosaurs from three different periods, showing the evolution from small to large. Another display employs a spinning cylinder, mirrors and a series of drawings to create a 19th-century-style animation, illustrating how several of the dinosaurs walked and ran. Elsewhere, digital technology is well employed, for example in a touchscreen table which shows how the giant teeth of a T-Rex emerged only a third of the way from its gums; by flipping the screen, viewers can expose the other two thirds embedded below the jawline.
At the end of the exhibition, a life-size T-Rex looms large. Its open jaws show lines of spit going from giant tooth to gums, top to bottom; while science is everywhere in this show, so is art. Wiry grey hairs march down its back. It is fearsome and it looks alive.
Unlike this model, palaeontology is a field on the move. If images of scientists heading into the field dominated the late 20th-century imagination of students of dinosaurs, many young experts today are focusing on the molecular level, hoping that a close examination of any remaining tissue will reveal details such as the colours of the animals' skin or eggs.
With so many fossils unearthed, scientists today have the luxury of overview, so they can begin to answer the bigger questions. Perhaps, for very young scientists, that journey will start with a trip to a museum, a visit to a fossil dig, or even the scientifically informed digital imagining of a tyrant lizard king in action.
United Airlines flies from Auckland to New York, via San Francisco
T. rex: The Ultimate Predator is open now at the American Museum of Natural History.