Friday, August 18, 2017

Dinosaurs of China in Nottingham: part 2 - Feathered Flyers

While the reconstructed skeletons of big scaly beasts dominate the main downstairs area of Dinosaurs of China, the real treasures are upstairs, where far more delicate, intricately preserved and altogether fluffy animals await. While some of our scientist readers will have seen these in person before, DoC is a unique opportunity for us mere laypeople to get up close to feathered beauties from China. And yes, many of them are originals, including Stripy Longtail here!

Notice the fish, bottom left.

This specimen, referred to Sinosauropteryx, represents an animal preserved in absolutely stunning detail; near-as-damnit complete, articulated and with soft tissue and integumentary outlines all over the place. Before this, the only remotely comparable specimen that I'd seen up close was the Berlin Archaeopteryx, which is revered enough to have a whole (small) room to itself. Dinosaurs of China is host to a number of original specimens like this, each one worth the price of entry alone as far as I'm concerned.

As I mentioned previously, the exhibition is intended to take visitors on a journey from Ground Shakers (the 'classic' dinosaurs) to Feathered Flyers. After walking through the museum's regular taxidermy bird gallery - now host to an iffy Oviraptor skeleton and another, much cooler non-avian dinosaur that I'll get to later - one must ascend a suitably grand staircase to enter the Realm of the Birdosaurs. When compared with the main hall, it's a fairly unassuming space, but the alarmingly large Gigantoraptor mount at its centre more than makes up for any lack of architectural grandeur.

It's impressive and startling, in the way that only an absurdly overblown Cretaceous turkey-saur brandishing an alarming set of claws could be; but it's 'just' a cast, of course. Not to worry, though - if it's a real oviraptorosaur* that you're after, DoC is happy to oblige.

It may be missing a head, but the Caudipteryx on show at the exhibition is extremely impressive all the same. Note the feathers and possible gastroliths, but also the extraordinary fidelity of the preservation. The arms look like they could've been torn from Jack Horner's genetically modified roast chicken. I was continually astonished by the claws; on both the original specimens and the better casts, they were inevitably much longer and tapered to a much finer point than I expected. Couple that with a keratinous sheath, and there's a good chance that many artists are understating the claws on their paravian dinosaurs.

Caudipteryx is lovely and all, but the real star of the show must surely be the Microraptor gui holotype, a breathtakingly complete specimen preserved in endlessly fascinating detail. Rearing sauropod spectaculars are fine, but nothing at DoC captures the imagination quite like this.

Again, the delicate, intricate details in this specimen are absolutely incredible. The skull has suffered somewhat from being smooshed, but the rest of the body is laid out like a skeletal diagram, or that daft dromaeosaur skeleton that's being dusted off at the beginning of Jurassic Park. It seems almost too good to be true. Natee and I could have stood there and pored over this one for hours, but we had to let other people have a peek!

In case you were wondering, DoC does indeed tackle the "Archaeoraptor" hoax, and presents it alongside a real specimen of Yanornis (above). It's wonderful to be able to compare this toothed bird with Microraptor, a contemporary, or at least near-contemporary.

Another notable bird on display is Confuciusornis, an original specimen complete with clawed hands and two very long tail feathers, the likes of which you'd never know where there had you only skeletons to work with. Confuciusornis was toothless but less well adapted for flight than Yanornis, which just goes to show that the evolution of birds was a bloody confusing mess (although that is how evolution tends to work; we humans just want it to be a neat and linear march of progress as we're often engineers at heart).

The original specimens are complimented by a number of truly excellent casts, sometimes virtually indistinguishable from the originals. I'd never seen the remains of Sinornithosaurus (above) up close before - the specimen used for this cast is quite jumbled, but in such cases there's always nearby signage to help you out. (In fact, the signage throughout this section continues to be excellent, especially as it always explains which specimens are casts, and which are originals.) I was especially struck by how Velociraptor-like its skull was, at least superficially, and once again the wicked-looking, pin-sharp claws on its hands.

Additional casts include Dilong (above - always great to see an early tyrannosauroid) and weirdo Epidexipteryx (below). Again, it's a superb cast, and while I haven't seen the original, it's hard to imagine that much detail has been lost.

Out on the balcony, overlooking the Mamenchisaurus (and being overlooked by its tiny towering head), visitors will find an amazing Protopteryx cast. Again, those hand claws are endlessly fascinating to me for some reason. Perhaps it's because it's so rare for one to imagine Cretaceous non-avian dinosaurs at this scale. There's also an inevitable tendency for pop culture renditions of small, feathered dinosaurs to become cutesy and non-threatening, when in reality their rapacious tendencies probably made them the tiny terrors of whatever they could get into their needling clutches.

Oh yes, and for all you Mark Wittons and David Unwins out there, there's the cast of a pterosaur, Wukongopterus. Positioned alongside so many paravian dinosaurs, the skeletal differences are thrown into stark relief, which is a Good Thing; of course, the signage still makes the point very clear.

Neaby is a 3D print of Yi qi, which is a cool thing for the exhibition to have, but suffers from being a rather poor quality reproduction - it's conspicuously lacking in detail and false-looking when compared with the far superior casts elsewhere in the exhibition. Still, it's more than made up for by... incredible 3D printed Mei long! It's the aforementioned 'much cooler non-avian dinosaur' in the bird gallery. Along with the slightly duff oviraptorosaur, the intention is to draw parallels between the behaviours of modern birds and their extinct theropod cousins. There's something quite magical about Mei; a frozen moment of theropod behaviour, preserved in three dimensions. This 3D print is a remarkable achievement. It's worth mentioning that the regular (and by now, quite historic) bird dioramas at Wollaton Hall are also excellent, and have recently undergone a little refurbishment. Even if you miss DoC, there's a wealth of natural history material here, and more to come in the near future.

And's the Mamenchisaurus' dopey face, as captured by Natee. If you have the chance, please do go and check out Dinosaurs of China - it's inexpensive, host to some amazing specimens that are rarely seen outside of China, and represents an enormous effort by people truly enthusiastic about educating the people (and even their parents) on the wonders of palaeontology in the 21st Century.

Byeeee! Photo by Natee.

*Your phylogeny may vary


  1. Hi, LITC. Long-time reader, first-time commenter. I just have a question about the second photo, the closeup on the referred Sinosauropteryx's head; At the tip of the lower jaw, you can see what seems to be a line of squarish objects above a grainy, textured surface. Could these perhaps be hints of skin texture or scales? If not, what are they? Thanks for your time.

  2. That is the holotype of Microraptor gui specifically. The holotype of the genus Microraptor pales in comparison.

    Re "cutesy" depictions of Mesozoic theropods: consider that some of the most terrifying extant predators relative to their body size are absolutely adorable.

    In any case, thanks for the virtual tour of the exhibit; I have to visit at some point for sure! Just need to figure out a way to easily get there from Bath/Bristol...

    1. Thanks for the tip, I'll have to fix the post.

  3. Oh man I really want to get to see this exhibit and though it's a bit of a trek from Manchester I'm hoping I can get it as a birthday present!

    As a small note on the site I could only find information about booking tickets. Can you actually turn up and purchase tickets/entry or is it advance booking only? Also how are the disabled facilities? (Because I'm most likely coming along with my Dad and he needs them).

    Super excited to see this and Dinosaurs in the Wild, though ; u ;

    1. I can answer your questions! You can buy at the door, which I did, although if it's still the summer holiday school break when you go, there might be a queue.

      There are disabled facilities, including a lift, but parking is a bit strange. We requested a disabled spot, and were told to park near the ice cream van. It is still quite a hike from there, but I believe there might have been a ramp that we missed as at the time, we could all walk up the hill with no problem.

  4. Awesome couple of posts Marc! Thanks for helping to clarify which are casts and which aren't, as I neglected to take picture of signage for some specimens (d'oh!).


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