A long love affair with dinosaurs – now, let’s get some of our own!

Are you excited?

When the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research launched the appeal to fund the purchase of three Diplodocus fossils, all I could muster up was mild interest.

Intellectually though, I knew that dinosaurs play a critical role at most of the museums I had visited in the US – this was also indicated from conversations with children both locally and overseas. And that impression was sealed when NUS’ Provost, Tan Eng Chye, a mathematician, confessed that he was consumed with a burning passion for dinosaurs when he was a kid.

When Eng Chye was Dean of Science, he whole-heartedly supported the project “A T-rex called Sue and Friends” which the Faculty of Science mounted in 2006 with the Singapore Science Centre. He knew it would fuel a passion for science amongst young people and they did stream in to the exhibition with little persuasion. The exhibition, funded by the faculty’s outreach budget, eventually paid for itself.

RMBR_SSC Dinosaurs 2006
RMBR_SSC Sue 2006

An ecosystem of excitement

That T. rex called Sue project fell into our lap because the Field Museum in Chicago had brought the project to Tokyo and wanted to maximise the exhibition’s presence in Asia. Our herpetological friends at the Field Museum pointed them our way and so the cast of Sue and a bunch of other dinosaur fossils arrived to great acclaim at the Singapore Science Centre.

As part of the exhibition, several scientists visited Singapore to participate in dinosaur symposiums and to give talks. All of them visited the zoological collection of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research with great interest. One of them also ventured to our mangroves to open the eyes of his students (back in the US) with sights of our biodiversity. I contributed images and a video of monitor lizards accumulated over the years to his image collection which he’d use for teaching back at his university. You see, most evolutionary biologists aren’t content with fossils, they examine living species with a keen eye and here in Singapore, we have a wonderful showcase of those!

Bird specimens for dino exhibit, 2006

Dodo (Raphus cucullatus)During the exhibition, the Raffles Museum used the opportunity to exhibit related specimens such as birds and crocodilians which we could smoothly inject into the narrative. Thus the arrival of dinosaur fossils meant that rare bird specimens saw the light of day, framed in the themes of evolution and extinction.

With an enhanced budget from the faculty at the time, the most accurate lifelike model of a Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) to date was made, and is still in the Science Centre today. This exhibition piece is an excellent teaching tool for it relates a classic story of ecological extinction. The iconic Dodo warns us of the folly of man – and the species’ demise is no less dramatic (perhaps even more tragic) than the mysterious disappearance of the dinosaurs. It is a grim reminder that extinction is a fate visited onto a record number of living species in this age of man.

The dinosaur exhibit excited fellow Museum Roundtable members – so much that we ran a blogging competition through Yesterday.sg. One winner, five-year old Loh Yih Hang had impatiently begged his parents for a chance to see the dinosaurs and blogged about his visit. We were touched by his expression and he won himself a Pachycephalosaurus model.

Hunybunz and the Pachycephalosaurus

When the Loh family came to collect his prize one Saturday, his parents, both NUS alumni, were surprised to see the Raffles Museum’s Public Gallery tucked away in the university. So the lights came on for an impromptu gallery tour and they were even further enamoured! A kid’s love of dinosaurs had unveiled the museum’s Southeast Asian collection to the family.

I read the post I wrote then and was tickled to see that I say,

“One of the objectives of bringing down Sue was to awaken that sense of awe in little kids and awaken an interest in Science.”

This is surely the main motivation behind every dinosaur-related exhibition! Scientists readily acknowledge that these large and mysterious animals from the past communicate science in a very effective manner. We are happy to do all we can to bring them to the public!

Origins

I first got excited about dinosaurs, not as a kid, but late into my years, as a final-year student here in the National University of Singapore, thanks to my “palaeantology and fossil evidence” lecturer, Chan Kai Lok. I wrote then that:

“…in 1990, a palaeontologist named Jack Horner talked about theories of warm-bloodedness, and brooding behaviour in such a graphical manner that he captivated an audience which included young children and academics.

After the session [at the Singapore Science Centre], it was an elated bunch of second and third years who returned to campus, still chattering away about the talk, feeling quite grateful to A/Prof Chan Kai Lok [who had arranged the talk]”

Though Chan Kai Lok was an entomologist and vector control expert, the theory of evolution is an integral part of every field of biology. He also knew the value of having students speak to someone like Jack, for you must realise that in those days, we did not have a stream of scientific visitors coming through Singapore every other week, as we do now. The university was certainly a much quieter place then. I remember Jack’s hefty hand shake in the dark corridor of the Department of Zoology and was fascinated that he had come all the way from Montana to chat with us!

Jack Horner, however, didn’t think it strange that people in faraway Singapore were excited about dinosaurs; wasn’t everybody?

Jack has inspired many people with his willingness to communicate and was the inspiration for the character Alan Grant, the paleontologist in the movie Jurassic Park. I had the pleasure of meeting him again in 2006, when he came back to talk at the dinosaur exhibition we were hosting.

It had been 16 years, but he still valued the interests of the little ones, who in fact, could best talk to him about the details of his favourite animals. And so, his second talk was entitled, “Cool New Stuff about Dead Old Dinosaurs“!

jack Horner, 2006
Jack Horner and the replica of Sue, 2006

SSC lecture, Jack Horner, 2006
The lecture crowd

About a decade earlier in 1995, the Dinosaur World Tour came to town. It brought with it 88 real fossils including the the only complete black skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex (“Black Beauty”), a 21 meter-long Mamenchisaurus (the largest Asian dinosaur), the troodontid skeleton of the bird- like Sinornithoides, a fleshed-out model of Albertosaurus, and a buried group of Pinacosaurus.

Simply to bring the exhibition here, $3 million had been spent. How do I remember all this? I worked with our recently graduated honours student, Chang Chia Yih, to host a lecture and bring undergraduates to the exhibit, and wrote an article for the student publication, The Mudskipper:

dinosaur world tour

I reached my pinnacle of dinosaur reading then – an amazing book by Louie Psihoyos, Hunting Dinosaurs provide the template. I supplemented that with the many dinosaur books lying around the lab at the time, belonging to a fellow-zoology postgrad, Alvin Wong.

So when we brought our undergraduates to the exhibition at the Singapore Science Centre, I was able to do an excellent job of guiding – I am my harshest critic, but I remember stitching many stories with the exhibits and the eyes of the undergrads were glistening. A student from that class told me recently she still remembers the performance and it had been clear and enjoyable!

You see, I had become as enthusiastic as a kid!

That fruitful experience inspired me to “stop the press” of The Mudskipper, courtesy of chief editor Loh Lih Woon, to insert an article in January 1996 in which I thanked everyone who enabled the experience. This included two lecturers who had allowed me to hijack the 2nd and 3rd year classes with their blessings – and one of them was Peter Ng. Years later as director of RMBR, he helped bring the 2006 dinosaur exhibition to Singapore with Tan Swee Hee and both of them, along with Leo Tan and Belinda Teo, are at the forefront of the current effort to purchase the Diplodocus group to be a permanent feature in the new Raffles Museum building.

The presence of these long dead creatures is sure to be uncanny – it will stimulate the ecosystem of visitors, exhibits, field trips, exchange of ideas, questions, discussions, competitions, and of course, will excite the curiosity, wonder and scientific interest of many a little kid. Once drawn to the museum, they will discover the showcase of biodiversity from Singapore and the region as well as the efforts of the local natural history community engaged in exploration, appreciation and protection.

I am excited!

With these three Diplodocus, an opportunity has fallen into our laps once again, like it did each time before. And once again, we must grasp the opportunity to make the best of it.

Simply thinking about the possibilities this will create has roused me from my stupor! I hope we will succeed. It’s been 21 years since Jack Horner brought the subject to life for me, and I can’t wait to get excited again and infect students and kids out there with a passion for exploration and discovery!

You can donate to the effort to bring the three Diplodocus dinosaur fossils to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at rmbr.nus.edu.sg/dino.

The museum and dinosaur acquisition will be discussed in a talk at the National Museum of Singapore today, Fri 29 Jul 2011 – registration is free.

Links

  • 2011 – “Please help to bring the dinosaurs to Singapore” – the Raffles Museum’s Diplodocus Family appeal. Letter from Leo Tan, Peter Ng, Tan Swee Hee and Belinda Teo, posted in the NUS Biodiversity Crew, 28 Jul 2011.
  • 2011 – News and the discussion about the Diplodocus dinosaurs acquisition archived at Raffles Museum News.
  • 2006Dinosaur blog posts from the old RMBR News blog (loads slowly).
  • 2006Dinosaurs! A T. rex named Sue and friends – exhibition webpage hosted by Department of Biological Sciences, NUS.
  • 1996 – “Stop Press!!!” A big thank you to the BSS SuperSenior and Zoology staff who facilitated our student’s visit to the Dinosaur World Tour. – Article by N. Sivasothi in The Mudskipper, Jan 1996.

Update – Eugene Tay commented,

It “should be emphasized that RMBR is seeking public donations for the dinosaurs, and not asking the government for money.”

Yes, the acquisition is being attempted through public fund raising – dollars and cents are trickling in and hopefully a few deep pockets will chip in as well. In this post, I wanted to simply share that this idea is not a new one.

We have tried many times to bring dinosaurs to the people through speakers and fossils, without the resources of a full blown natural history museum and in earlier years, without much support. Each time, I felt the back-breaking effort was easily well worth it and thus I have no hesitation about supporting this exercise.

See also, “Yesterday, I was smitten by dinosaurs!” by Ria Tan. Wild Shores of Singapore, 30 Jul 2011,

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4 thoughts on “A long love affair with dinosaurs – now, let’s get some of our own!

  1. Nice post Siva! Dinosaurs were part of my life since childhood. The Stegosaurus was my favorite drawing subject when I was 13 and one event that sealed my choice of subject to read in University happened in my secondary school year. I was sec 3 and Peter Ng brought along a visiting professor to talk about his research about dinosaurs. could still remember him walking across the stage imitating how the T rex walked (knees bent in, awkward shuffle – things have changed so much since then!)

    Fossil evidence on evolution of tetrapods, explanation of distribution of animals through biogeography in my evolution lessons means I have to talk about dinosaurs again in my classes.

    It will be great if we have actual fossils to admire, observe and study. Imagine the possibilities for teaching biology!

    • Gosh Cheng Puay, that must have been when Bob Bakker came to speak! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_T._Bakker

      I like this bit:

      The bearded paleontologist Dr. Robert Burke, who is eaten by a *Tyrannosaurus rex * in Steven Spielberg’s film *The Lost World: Jurassic Park *, is an affectionate caricature of Bakker. In real life, Bakker has argued for a predatory *T. rex*, while Bakker’s rival paleontologist Jack Horner views it as primarily a scavenger . According to Horner, Spielberg wrote the character of Burke and had him killed by the *T. rex* as a favor for Horner. After the film came out, Bakker recognized himself in Burke, loved the caricature, and actually sent Horner a message saying, “See, I told you *T. rex* was a hunter!”

  2. Thanks for speaking up on this. Like yourself, I am a dinosaur fan and has been one for a long time running, with that naturalist streak still running in me. We need to break out of our hyper realistic and “bread and butter” mode of thinking about what’s relevant to Singapore and what isn’t. Moreover, the funds are privately raised and not drawn from government coffers.

    I love the idea of associating some of our avian and perhaps reptilian specimens with the diplodocid fossils. As a natural history museum, the future Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research should have a fairly good representation of what’s here and what’s there. Now, the next challenge would be to get back that set of whale bones from Malaysia!

    • Ha-ha, Walter that set of whale bones gonna be hard to get back! Great, keep that naturalists streak alive, it will express itself when the chance comes in unlikely places then!

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