Thursday, August 23, 2018

Dinosaurs in the Wild

Having heard many good things about the "immersive experience" Dinosaurs in the Wild, I figured that I should pay it a visit before it closes in London on September 2. I had largely neglected photography during the trip (and the few pictures I took didn't turn out great), so this post will be illustrated with images borrowed from the Dinosaurs in the Wild website.

For those who are unfamiliar with the experience, the conceit of Dinosaurs in the Wild is that time travel has been developed by the fictional company Chronotex, who have set up a research station in the Maastrichtian of western North America that is now open to visitors. Upon arrival, visitors are "transported" into the past and then "driven" to the research station. Along the way, they get their first look at the fauna of the Late Cretaceous (portrayed by photorealistic animation on 3D screens). As has been discussed at length by scientific consultant Darren Naish, the depictions of the animals are heavily informed by science, incorporating elements of both recent research and plausible All-Yesterdays-style speculation.

At the research station itself, visitors are first given a tour of the labs. Others have rightly praised the attention to detail presented by Dinosaurs in the Wild, and it is particularly prominent during this segment of the experience. The tables and cabinets are filled with "biological samples" taken from the "field", far too many for a visitor to completely take in on a single trip, but all inspired by real-world scientific research. Highlights include an Alamosaurus heart (which can be stimulated to beat), dinosaur fecal matter, and a preserved specimen of a stem-primate in a jar. I paid particular attention to the tray of feathers on one of the tables, which included not only "standard" pennaceous feathers but also speculative monofilaments from Pachycephalosaurus, as well as samples for which the source species had not been confidently identified (adding to the authenticity of the laboratory setting).

Continuing on, we were treated to an autopsy of a recently deceased Pachycephalosaurus (again, incorporating many recent findings about dinosaur anatomy) and then to a dinosaur hatchery. The eggs of different dinosaur species are shown to require different incubation strategies (also based on fossil evidence), and we were given the opportunity to meet a newly-hatched Dakotaraptor (portrayed by an animatronic).

Among the maniraptors depicted at Dinosaurs in the Wild, the recently-described large dromaeosaurid Dakotaraptor was the most prominently featured.

The next couple of rooms showcased "captive specimens" of Cretaceous animals (portrayed by more animatronics) being kept in the research station. I especially liked the "night room" dedicated to (speculatively) nocturnal species such as Didelphodon, Acheroraptor, and Leptoceratops. A nice touch was the "revelation" that the Leptoceratops had color patterns only visible under ultraviolet light.

But the best was naturally saved for last: having seen the inner workings of the research station, visitors are taken to an observation deck where four giant "windows" allow them to observe what's going on in the ecosystem "outside". It is impossible to keep track of all four windows at once, so one will inevitably miss some sequences, but any amount of attention given is sure to be rewarded by the sight of interesting (and believable) behaviors exhibited by the animals. A Prognathodon launches an attack on an unsuspecting dinosaur on a riverbank. A breeding colony of Dakotaraptor doesn't take kindly to an Alamosaurus wandering through their nesting ground. A group of Thescelosaurus repels a marauding Dakotaraptor by pelting it with sand, but lose one of their young to some Quetzalcoatlus. (Keen-eyed visitors will likely notice that some of these events are foreshadowed early in the tour: for example, one report shown at the beginning of the experience mentions that the Thescelosaurus appear to be unaccustomed to dealing with attacks from the Quetzalcoatlus.)

Despite Chronotex's apparent success, one gets the increasing impression during the tour that they still face some challenges that need to be ironed out, from contagious diseases that they're unprepared for to implied dinosaur escapes. When the tour eventually comes to an end, it is because the visitors are forced to evacuate. This is a good time for me to give props to the on-site staff I encountered, all of whom did an excellent job at staying in-character throughout. All of their words and actions, down to their conversations among themselves, were presented as organic reactions to the simulated events around them, even when they weren't the centerpiece of a given segment.

Notice the attendant enantiornithines perched on this Triceratops (also present on the Tyrannosaurus in the first image of this post). Unfortunately, I didn't notice any enantiornithines rendered in animated form at the actual experience (though it's possible they were simply overshadowed by larger animals), but their existence was certainly alluded to: they are included on observatory signage and samples of their feathers are on display at the lab.

Having already read glowing reviews of Dinosaurs in the Wild by Mark Witton and Marc Vincent (not to mention the positive insider's perspective of Darren Naish), I didn't exactly need any convincing of its overall merit. Indeed, my review offers little beyond adding to the chorus of positive reactions to it. However, being able to confirm its quality for myself was certainly a worthwhile experience.

What's more, the attraction seems to have been well received by the general public as well. At a time when many paleontologists frequently lament how mainstream media rarely reflects their latest research, Dinosaurs in the Wild appears to be an effective and successful means of exhibiting our current paleontological understanding to a broader audience.

Is there anything about Dinosaurs in the Wild that I would modify if I had the power to do so? It's easy to desire even bigger and better things. (More paleoenvironments! More dinosaurs!) However, in its current iteration, there's probably not much I'd change, to be honest. Okay... I suppose it needed more references to alvarezsaurids. (I didn't see any.)

Dinosaurs in the Wild is open in London until September 2, with future locations yet to be announced at the time of writing. If you are a paleontology enthusiast who is in reach of southern England during the next week or so, I would recommend a visit!

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