None of us has ever come face to knee with a dinosaur, of course. We've had to be content with video versions in second-rate horror movies. Or with dinosaur skeletons in museums - silent, skinless beasts who, no matter how well constructed and how menacing their poses, have only looked partially convincing.
Starting today, though, Utahns will have a chance to get a better feel for what the real thing was like.Nine "Dinamation" dinosaurs will be on exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, which since the first of the year has been celebrating "Utah's first residents" in The Year of the Dinosaur. The exhibit will run through Dec. 31.
The life-like animated dinosaurs move their heads and tails, take steps, and snort. Their mechanical innards are covered with a silicon rubber skin to give realistic color and texture - or as realistic as can be supposed, since no one was around 150 million years ago to get a photo.
"Stepping into the Dumke Gallery here at the museum will be about the closest you'll ever come to stepping into the Mesozoic," notes museum curator Frank DeCourten.
According to museum director Donald V. Hague, the exhibit has drawn as many as 350,000 visitors in the cities where it has already been featured.
Visitors will need reserved tickets, purchased in advance, to see the exhibit. Tickets are $3.50 for adults and $1.50 for children and are available at the Hunstman Center, Salt Palace and SmithTix outlets.
The nine Dinamation dinosaurs include several that are lifesize and several that are half-scale. The 24-foot-long Allosaurus, who can move his head and tail, is life-size. The spiny-backed Stegosaurus is half-scale but is still over 12 feet long and creepy. The flying Pteranodon has a wingspan of 26 feet.
The reptiles' moving parts are operated by a computer-controlled system of compressed air motors. "Because they're air driven, the movements are fluid and graceful, not jerky," says DeCourten. The snorts and roars they make are synthetic digital recordings based on sounds of modern reptiles thought to be representative of how dinosaurs might have sounded.
The animals are so noisy, in fact, that DeCourten and other museum staff who have labored late into the night during the last week to get the exhibit ready have had to turn off the sound so they could think.
The dinosaurs on display are more colorful than you might suppose, given the usual battleship gray color we've come to associate with the prehistoric reptiles.
Their drabness is just one of many misconceptions we have about dinosaurs, says DeCourten. "It's what I call the reptilian bias," he explains. "We've assumed that were just overgrown lizards and hulking relics." But we now know that they were warm blooded, agile "and not an evolutionary dead-end," he says.
Although one of the main tenets of dinosaur orthodoxy has always been how dim-witted they were, based on the ratio of their brain size to their body size, DeCourten says that it is now known that in the late Cretaceous period dinosaurs had brain-body ratios more like birds.
All of the Dinamation dinosaurs on display lived in Utah, although not at the same time. Utah, in fact, has produced more dinosaur types than any other place in North America, says DeCourten.
The museum staff, under the direction of Salt Lake Acting Company set designer Cory Dangerfield, has re-created a prehistoric landscape in the Dumke Gallery, on the museum's main floor. Among silk greenery representative of Mesozoic Utah, a life-size Allosaurus opens its jaw to expose a set of enormous, menacing teeth. Across the room, a half-size Apatosaurus (formerly known as the brontosaurus) and a baby Apatosaurus move their long necks from side to side.
Also on display are a Stegosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Triceratops and Ankylosaurus.
Upstairs in the main dinosaur hall are the flying Pteronadon and a cut-away version of a Dimetrodon that reveals its robotic neuromuscular system. Museum-goers can push buttons to activate the tail, head, mouth and legs.
The creatures were fashioned by Dinamation International Corp., whose designers consulted with paleontologists before translating the reptilian anatomy into silicon and microchips.
Utah's Year of the Dinosaur, created by gubernatorial proclamation, also includes an indoor quarry, in place in the museums Dinosaur Discovery Room. The 26-by-30-foot quarry simulates a badland outcropping. Under the dirt, replicas of Parasaurolophus fossils lie waiting to be excavated.
The Discovery Room also features more than a dozen exhibits and activities, including a lab where visitors can watch museum scientists cleaning, repairing and labeling fossils from the museum's new real-life quarry in east-central Utah.
Other dinosaur events this summer include family workshops, special classes, field trips and actual quarry work:
* On June 23 and 30, and again on July 7 and 14, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., parents and children ages 5 through 8 can participate in a family dinosaur workshop. Cost is $10 for members, $11 for non-members.
* From June 20 through 29, children 9 through 14 can learn to make a claymation video about dinosaurs. Fee is $40 for members, $42 for non-members.
* On July 8 through 10, adults can be weekend naturalists. Paleontologist Ray Davis will lead tours through museums and quarries in dinosaur country.
* From Sept. 15 through 19 adults can participate in excavation work at the Long Walk Quarry. The fee is $130 for members, $150 for non-members.
The Long-Walk Quarry near Castle Dale, was excavated last year by the Museum, with the aid of a National Geographic Society grant. This year's work is being sponsored by a grant from Utah Power and Light Co.
According to curator DeCourten, the site is already turning out to be of "major scientific importance. . . It's the `missing link' in the Colorado Plateau."
Up until now, he explains, most of the fossils found in Utah have been from the Jurassic Period, about 150 million years ago. The Long Walk quarry fossils, however, are from the early Cretaceous period, about 115 million years ago.
Scientists know that there were radical changes in dinosaurs between the Jurassic and late Cretaceous, says DeCourten. The Long Walk fossils are expected to illustrate this evolutionary process, including the reduction in size of the brontosaurus-type giants and the introduction of new types of dinosaurs such as the duck-billed and horned.
"Utah," says DeCourten, "is the heartland of dinosaur research."