Tall tails: Brookfield Zoo offers family excitement from dining to dinosaurs

2013-04-04T00:00:00Z Tall tails: Brookfield Zoo offers family excitement from dining to dinosaursBy Philip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

It's easy to understand why the Chicago Zoological Society's Brookfield Zoo has been ranked second in the Top 10 list of the country's best zoos for kids.

It's one of the only places hungry minds can dine on "bison burgers" and also get up close to moving and roaring dinosaurs, as well as a standing invite to meet and learn about exotic animals from around the globe.

The lure for visitors of every age now goes beyond today's favorite creatures big and small of the planet, to also include the most famed extinct animals of Earth — dinosaurs.

Even if these roaring reptiles aren't real, they are still realistic and even scary at times, at least for animated life-size interpretations.

Brookfield Zoo's newest exhibit, "Dinosaurs Alive!" is returning after a popular run in the summer of 2009.

The exhibit, sponsored by Dominick's is now bigger and better to give visitors a chance to step back in time while walking an outdoor wooded landscape to experience 24 prehistoric animatronic creatures.

Even better, the display is "interactive and multisensory," meaning these life-sized, lifelike creatures move and roar.

Beginning Saturday, guests to the zoo will be able to travel back to a time when animals larger than life ruled the Earth. The fun and engaging exhibit has many "newcomers" with names like Styracosaurus, Tuojiangosaurus, and Pachycephalosaurus, as well as some with feathers, such as Microraptor and Gigantoraptor, the latter of which was discovered less than a decade ago in China.

Many of the ferocious favorites like Tyrannosaurus rex and Dilophosaurus are also back, as will Stegosaurus and Triceratops.

The highlight of the exhibit is Shantungosaurus—the largest dinosaur to walk on two legs—standing more than 20 feet tall and 50 feet long next to the zoo’s Roosevelt Fountain.

"Dinosaurs Alive!" runs through Oct. 27 and includes a tented showcase to highlight the most recent paleontological findings, including scientific discoveries that show how birds evolved from dinosaurs. In addition, guests learn how dinosaurs are relevant to today's world and how changes in climate may have led to their extinction.

"We often think of dinosaurs as other-worldly creatures, but there are actually many similarities between our lives today and the Earth they knew," said Andre Copeland, interpretive programs manager for the Chicago Zoological Society.

"This entertaining and educational experience offers our guests an opportunity to imagine living with dinosaurs while exploring some of the connections between humans and dinosaurs."

Here are a few favorite dinosaur facts and details provided by Copeland:

• The word dinosaur means "fearsome lizard." Dinosaurs are considered reptiles but were not actually lizards.

• Dinosaurs ranged in size from a small cat to 3-1/2 giraffes stacked on top of one another.

• Dinosaurs lived during the Mesozoic era, from the Triassic period, about 230 million years ago, through the Jurassic period, to the end of the Cretaceous period about 65 million years ago.

• Dinosaurs were able to roam Earth longer than any other land animal because they continuously adapted to their environment. Before they became extinct, dinosaurs roamed the Earth for 165 million years.

• Several theories exist as to why dinosaurs became extinct. The most well-known theory is a huge asteroid or comet hit Earth, causing an enormous explosion that in turn darkened the Earth. Another idea is a series of volcanic eruptions blocked the sun's rays, cooling the entire planet.

• Dinosaurs were first discovered in 1822, and the first fossil was scientifically categorized in 1824. In 1853, a British scientist introduced the concept of them at a dinner party inside a replica of a dinosaur's stomach. However, people had been finding dinosaur fossils for thousands of years. Many believed they were dragon bones.

• Some scientists believe many dinosaurs may have been brightly colored like modern birds. This would have been handy for camouflage and for courtship displays. A few dinosaurs may even have been feathered.

• The word "fossil" literally means "dug up." Conditions have to be perfect for a fossil to form, which is why they are so rare. Fossils can form only in sedimentary rock. Also, when a dinosaur died, it had to be covered quickly by mud or sand. Gradually, as water ran over the bones and teeth, their calcium was replaced by rock minerals. Eventually, all traces of the bones are gone, leaving an exact replica made of stone.

• It is unknown how many dinosaur species actually existed, but scientists have uncovered between 500 and 700 distinct types. This represents about 5 percent of the known bird and reptile species of today.

• At the start of the Mesozoic era (some 250 million years ago), all of the continents on Earth were joined together into one supercontinent called Pangaea. Over the next 160 million years, Pangaea split into two giant continents that continued to move, split, and form into the continents we have today. This is why scientists find similar fossils all over the world.

• Roughly 65 percent of the dinosaurs were plant eaters (herbivores) and 35 percent were plant and meat eaters (omnivores).

• Scientists believe they can guess a dinosaur's intelligence by comparing the ratio of the brain cavity to the body size. Because meat-eating dinosaurs hunted for their food, possibly in packs, they are thought to have had larger brains and been more intelligent than plant-eating dinosaurs.

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