Archive for Sunday, February 21, 1999


February 21, 1999


— The world's largest traveling exhibit of prehistoric reptile and dinosaur fossils -- direct from Russia -- is the biggest thing to hit Kansas City in more than 200 million years.

Nobody could see velociraptors amid dense trees and ferns in the metal enclosure.

Only a helpless cow's coarse bellows -- and sudden silence -- offered insight into how ferocious predators standing 8 feet tall deployed large, retractable claws and knifelike teeth to bring down lunch.

"They show extreme intelligence," Robert Muldoon, Jurassic Park warden in the film of the same name, revealed to nauseated researchers Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler and Ian Malcolm. "Even problem-solving intelligence, especially the big one. That one, when she looks at you, you can see she's working things out."

He urged destruction of the creatures, but admired their cheetah speed and mental agility.

Of course, Muldoon was called upon to hunt the raptors after storm and saboteur permitted their escape. While preparing to shoot one raptor, tall grass at his elbow parted and a second raptor paused to permit Muldoon to deliver a final line.

"Clever girl," he said.

The real world

Steve Poitras, coordinator of a free exhibit at Crown Center in Kansas City, Mo., of 63 prehistoric reptile and dinosaur specimens collected over the past century in Russia and Mongolia, chuckled at director Steven Spielberg's big screen triumph of imagination.

In no order of importance, he clarified Spielberg's exaggerations: Velociraptors stood less than 3 feet tall, couldn't keep pace with cheetahs, weren't as smart as chimpanzees and may not have hunted in packs as suggested in the 1993 film.

"Come see the real thing," Poitras said. "This is the best of the best.

"You can't go to the Field Museum in Chicago or the Smithsonian Institute in Washington ... and see this diversity of organisms or get this close to them."

About 25 students from Free State and Lawrence high schools took Poitras up on his offer last week. They were bused to an early-morning tour of the exhibit and exposed to Poitras' perspectives on the fossils.

"This is equal to Treasures of the Czars," said Lawrence science teacher Rex Powell, a reference to a 1995 exhibit in Topeka of relics from the 300-year reign of the Romanov dynasty.

During the tour, Poitras challenged students to rethink common notions of life millions of years ago.

Consider this: Most renderings of dinosaurs don't show lips. He said that didn't make sense because skulls of the famous flesh-eating tyrannosaurus rex contain small openings in the bone around the teeth for vessels that supplied blood to lips. "Their teeth didn't just hang out," Poitras said.

In addition, dinosaurs didn't run around butting heads all day. Frills on the triceratops were as much for protection as attracting a mate.

"I just don't think they were out there menacing ... and tearing things up."

People assume dinosaurs lived about 100 years -- similar to humans today. Unlikely.

"It took 10 to 12 years for a tyrannosaurus to reach full size. Most probably lived about 25 years. There was likely a high attrition rate."

Getting down to business

Poitras, of Liberty, Mo., grew up a dinosaur fan. He studied paleontology in college but followed a more "practical" career path in business. Study of extinct creatures remained a hobby.

Over the past 10 years, he's worked to improve awareness of science through experiences in paleontology. He founded Jurassic Journeys and set to work luring a major exhibit to Kansas City, Mo.

His goal was twofold: bring sensational fossils to this part of the country and provide hard currency to Russian scientists struggling to keep museum collections intact during a period of economic chaos.

"Before they knew what had happened, $1 million in items had disappeared," he said.

Jurassic Journeys guaranteed the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow a monthly payment of $50,000 while the exhibit was at Crown Center. Donations from visitors, or Poitras if necessary, will cover that obligation.

The deal brought 33 complete skeletons, which span 180 million years of prehistoric time, to Crown Center. Two dominate the atrium -- a 15-foot-tall adult tyrannosaurus and a 19-foot-tall duckbilled saurolophus. Both are more than 70 million years old.

A gallery on the south end of Level 1 holds the rest of the collection. It's packed with fossilized dinosaur nests, a velociraptor, a juvenile tyrannosaurus and a number of bizarre creatures.

"More than 85 percent of the collection is real bone -- not casts," Poitras said.

He originally estimated 100,000 people would tour the exhibit Jan. 15 to April 11. In the first month, 61,000 passed through.

"I anticipate about 200,000 will make it," he said. "It's beyond anybody's expectation."

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is

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