When Don Lessem, otherwise known as Dino Don, reached into his leather knapsack and pulled out a 65-million-year-old dinosaur egg, my inner child exploded with excitement.
"That is so cool!" I shrieked in his face as he handed the surprisingly heavy fossilized egg to me, which, thankfully, is now safely behind glass as part of the new World’s Giant Dinosaurs exhibition at the Manitoba Museum.
Lessem is the creative mind behind the event, which is showcased in the museum’s newly enlarged Alloway Hall. Even with the increased ceiling height, the room is just barely big enough to house the massive, life-size Brachiosaurus robot, whose long neck extends almost to the roof.
Among robotic dinosaurs (some of which pee and fart for both comedic and educational purposes) are more traditional dinosaur skeletons, and the content of the exhibit focuses on the central scientific question of how dinosaurs got to be so large.
"The average dinosaur is the size of an SUV and a lot of them are the size of crows, but the biggest ones are that enormous, I mean as big as a building, literally. So how can an animal, in a sense of engineering and metabolism and diet, support that?" explains Lessem, who has a dinosaur, the Lessemsaurus, named after him.
"Fortunately somebody did answer that... A German team attacked this question from different angles, and what they found was a series of answers that are presented in the exhibit. The biggest one of all is in order to get huge, you have to have a tiny head... their heads are the size of a horse on an animal the size of a building with a brain the size of a golf ball," he continues.
"Statistically, this is the stupidest thing that ever lived; if you compare the size of the brain to the size of the body, they don’t come out very well. But, it worked, they were big successes, so brains aren’t everything."
This is the worldwide debut for World’s Giant Dinosaurs, the biggest and most accurate collection of moving dinosaurs that has ever been displayed indoors. The exhibit is certainly a kid-friendly space; there are numerous interactive sections, including a dig pit to excavate fossils and a dinosaur kids can ride and also draw on, in addition to all the fossils available to touch and hold as well as touch-screen quizzes and drawing/stamping stations and an excellent collection of "bad dinosaur jokes" (Lessem has a great sense of humour).
Much has been hypothesized about why almost every child goes through a dinosaur phase, and the most common answer to the mystery of why kids get obsessed with dinos seems to be tied to the mystery of the dinosaurs themselves.
"Kids love nature and animals, and I think dinosaurs are particularly interesting," adds Nizar Ibrahim, Chicago-based paleontologist who hosted a National Geographic presentation on the spinosaurus at Centennial Concert Hall in February.
"Not only are they awe-inspiring animals like lions and elephants or something like that, there’s this added layer of excitement because there are so many mysteries. They’re kind of like dragons from mythology but they’re real; we have their bones. There was a time when our planet was ruled by dinosaurs for tens of millions of years and your imagination just runs wild.
"They’re a little familiar in some sense, their teeth and jaws, but at the same time they’re all so alien-looking they don’t look like anything like the big mammals we have around today, and of course, they’re much bigger than the biggest mammals around today."
But that’s just what grownups think; to find out for sure, the Free Press went right to the source.
If it wasn’t immediately evident four-year-old Jack Grunerud loves dinosaurs as he clutched his stuffed triceratops puppet in one hand and a little orange raptor in the other while yelling the word "dinosaurs" as he ran around his home, it became even more clear when he pulled out his Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life.
"I just have to show you one more," he said, more than once, as he flipped through the pages, casually rattling off complicated names for the dinos illustrated in the book. Jack’s passion for all things dinosaur began around a year ago, when he was just three, and now he often asks his parents to read pages out of the dinosaur encyclopedia as his bedtime story.
His reasoning behind his love of dinos is brief, but without fault: "I like it because I like it," he proclaimed with authority. "I like the big teeth and tails... and wings!"
Six-year-old Noah Walsh was able to expand on his thoughts a bit more and specified the spinosaurus as his clear favourite.
"I like how it’s an enormous fish-eating dinosaur with a sail on its back," he explains, citing the ever-popular "they’re big" as the reason why he likes dinosaurs in general.
Noah will be heading to a week-long dinosaur day camp at the museum this summer — one of a handful of dinosaur-related events the museum is hosting — where he hopes to learn even more about dinosaurs than he already knows after devouring almost every relevant book in his school library. He says he’d like to be a paleontologist when he grows up, a dream he hopefully realizes, as there are relatively few dinosaur scientists around the world despite the fact we are in the "golden age of dinosaurs," Lessem says.
"Half of all the dinosaurs we know have been found in the last 25 years and a there’s a new discovery every two weeks," he says. "It’s a very vibrant science."
World’s Giant Dinosaurs opens May 19 and runs until September 4.