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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

During our stay in Los Angeles this past week, we encountered a preservation effort of a different sort - some 300 dinosaur specimens on display at the new Dinosaur Hall at L.A. County's Natural History Museum. At the center of the exhibit, are three Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons, including the youngest known T. Rex fossil in the world. This is a hands-on display, with interactive games where children can play paleontologist and visitors are greeted with the simulated sound of a dinosaur's roar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROARING)

YDSTIE: Curator and paleontologist Luis Chiappe directs the museum's Dinosaur Institute.

LUIS CHIAPPE: There are three T. Rexes of different sizes and we are very pleased that we can show it and we can show the baby that was estimated to have died at the age of two and is about 10 feet long. With juveniles, that's about 20 feet long and died at the age of 14. And to sub it out(ph) or older teenage that died at the age of 17 and it's about 30 feet long.

YDSTIE: It's huge and ferocious.

CHIAPPE: They are. And the way they are arranged here, they're arranged around a carcass of a duckbill dinosaur, what we know was part of the meal of Tyrannosaurus Rex. And we use this display to talk about both growth on the one hand and behavior on the other hand.

YDSTIE: The exhibit has a modern sensibility. The hall is washed in natural light, immense dinosaur skeletons are mounted atop sleek black platforms with poses that are both intimidating and breathtaking. Most of the dinosaur skeletons on display here are real - they aren't just casts. And Chiappe collected some of them himself in the Utah desert. He says instead of organizing the exhibit chronologically, he decided to present the fossils in a way that highlights what we already know about dinosaurs and what's left to learn.

CHIAPPE: Questions that both the public and the scientists ask about these animals: how did they behave or how did they grow or how did they walk and it's really all about how do we know what we know.

YDSTIE: How much do we know?

CHIAPPE: We know quite a lot about them but there's also a lot that we do not know about them. It's something that we like to highlight whenever it's necessary because it's something that inspires. It's something that kids may come here and they may leave this exhibit thinking maybe I'll be the one that finds the clues that can provide an answer to this question that we don't have one today.

YDSTIE: And on our visit, we saw plenty of children, for whom these near-mythical prehistoric animals are endlessly fascinating. So, can you tell us your name?

DANTE LEWIS: Dante Lewis, Jr.

YDSTIE: And how old are you?

JR.: Ten.

YDSTIE: What's your favorite dinosaur?

JR.: The Tyrannosaurus Rex.

YDSTIE: Well, have you seen any here?

JR.: That family of them over there.

YDSTIE: Right there, a family of T. Rexes. Pretty exciting.

CHIAPPE: A mother and her young.

YDSTIE: So, why are you so fascinated by them?

YDSTIE: Because when I grow up, I want to be a paleontologist.

YDSTIE: You do? Very cool, very cool. But our collective fascination with dinosaurs can often lead to misconceptions. Again, the exhibit's curator Luis Chiappe.

CHIAPPE: I think one of the big misconceptions that people have about dinosaurs is that essentially every animal, or every large reptile that lived during the age of the dinosaurs was a dinosaur, and that's not really the case. And this gallery really illustrates a number of, say, the ancient marine animals, marine reptiles, that lived during the age of the dinosaurs and were not dinosaurs. Or also, another misconception is the idea that all dinosaurs lived and died at the same time. And this exhibit also shows how dinosaurs became extinct at different times. For example, take two iconic dinosaurs: triceratops and stegosaurus. They lived 85 million years apart. We only live 65 million years apart from the triceratops. So, in a time context, triceratops is closer to us, or we're closer to triceratops, than a triceratops to a stegosaurus.

YDSTIE: One of the movie conceits, of course, is that dinosaurs and humans existed together. But that's not the case, of course.

CHIAPPE: Well, we live with 10,000 species of dinosaurs but they're not the dinosaurs that lived during the age of the dinosaur millions of years ago. They're the birds. And throughout this exhibit we highlight very clearly that there's plenty of evidence indicating that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, that therefore dinosaurs are not extinct, and that birds are living dinosaurs.

(SOUNDBITE OF DINOSAUR ROARING)

YDSTIE: That's curator Luis Chiappe. You can see images of the dinosaurs on display at L.A.'s Natural History Museum by visiting our website, NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YDSTIE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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