Dinosaurs are going to the birds – A review of May’s SciBar


Dr Wang Qi from the architecture department at the University of Nottingham arrives at SciBar to discuss the Nottingham Dinosaur Festival. Like all speakers at SciBar, he gets 30 minutes to talk, then we have a break for beer then he has to face up to a Q and A session from the pub goers.


230 million years ago to 65 million years ago dinosaurs ruled the earth. They covered the entire planet and today, their remains are found on all of the continents. But they keep changing. There was a time when they were imagined as large reptiles living on the ground. These days we know different.


Which brings us onto Wang’s work – he’s preparing to put on a dinosaur exhibition at Wollaton Hall. These days it’s more famous as being stately Wayne manor in the last Batman film but they have over 70,000 collections there already including the 170-year old George the Gorilla (who’s been around so long that he used to scare co-organiser Louise’s mum when she was a child) Since dinosaurs are so popular worldwide, there are a lot of exhibitions out there but they are all pretty similar. Wang is planning something that is still dinosaurs but different.


The Paleozoological Museum of China (PMC) will be supplying the fossils for the exhibit. This is an establishment that has discovered a lot of new dinosaurs including those that look like birds. There is now a thought that not all dinosaurs became extinct but that some evolved into modern birds.


It was Thomas Huxley who first noticed the similarities in the 19th century. He realised that a chicken carcass had a lot in common with dinosaur remains that were being discovered. Now, a number of fossils of dinosaurs that are 50-60cm long are being found that have clear feather imprints in the fossil.


It’s interesting to see how the perception of dinosaurs has changed over the years. In the 1850s, they were seen as big and fat. By the 1960s, they were standing on two feet but they were still large. By the 2000s, they had become smaller, sleeker and faster.


Which brings us to the Caudipteryx. This has brought about a new vision for the reconstruction of dinosaurs. For the first time, scientists can tell what colour dinosaurs might have been. This has led to the first idea for the exhibition – use dinosaurs as a fundamental inspiration to create fashions to display.


The second idea is “dream of a dead man” based around a hologram of Francis Willoughby. He was part of the family that owned Wollaton Hall and was really into birds and fish and owned a huge collection. He lived from 1635-1672 which was a time where myths were popular.


For example, the griffon, big, strong with feathers and a beak. Was it possible that the discovery of dinosaur fossils became the legend? In this exhibition, the hologram of Francis would describe the myth while on the other side, there would be the scientific explanation.


The third option is flying dinosaurs. Here the star attraction would be the Confuciusornis. This is a dinosaur from 200 million years ago that has been discovered by the PMC. The idea would be to have “magic stairs” which would enable visitors to feel as if they were flying around dinosaurs. The layout of these stairs could then be changed as often as required, even daily.


The final idea is one that explicitly compares dinosaurs to birds. Focussing on the Microraptor, the exhibition would explore the idea that dinosaurs went away; it was only the really big ones that died out. This would feature models mounted on poles outside. These would also have bird feeders attached so that when real birds land on them, the pole shakes which makes it look like the dinosaurs are flying too.


Boards showing the four ideas have already been displayed at Wollaton Hall and 95% of respondents to questionnaires said that they would like to see dinosaurs there. The plan is that the exhibit would be in place for six months starting in the summer of 2016.


In the Q and A session, Wang talked about the difficulties of identifying new dinosaur skeletons. For example, how do you tell if it’s a young dinosaur or a fully grown adult? What if it’s a younger or older version of something that’s already been found? Imagine if everyone in the pub had their skeletons found in millions of years time, maybe we’d all be identified as different species just because we were all different heights.


Part of the problem is that everyone loves a new discovery. This lead to a problem for National Geographic in 1999 – an unscrupulous Chinese farmer had stuck together half a dinosaur skeleton and half a bird skeleton and then sold it to America. When it was tested, it turned out that both bits of rock were completely different.


The other big question was why did dinosaurs have feathers in the first place? Was it to keep warm? Is there any chance that they were warm blooded? It’s probable that those with larger feathers were able to glide, rather than actually fly.


Of course the really interesting thing is that new discoveries are being made all the time. In the last two weeks a new dinosaur called Yiqi has been found which had a bat-like membrane. Imagine that at Wollaton Hall – bat dinosaur at the home of Batman.


SciBar returns to The VAT & Fiddle at 7:30pm on the 24th of June where Professor Philip Moriarty will be talking about what happens “when quantum physics goes up to 11”