Monster hit at the Natural History Museu

IAN COLLINS Dig those dinosaurs – a menu of summer fun studying monstrous dinners and digestions is being unearthed at the Natural History Museum. Ian Collins grabs a shovel.

IAN COLLINS

Aanyone who has encountered the ever-open mouth of Janet Street-Porter - on telly or, still worse, in the teeth and flesh, for the rabid rambler's favourite walk is over Dunwich Heath - will have had a foretaste of Dino Jaws.

But the new summer blockbuster at the Natural History Museum is really meat and drink to the celebrity likes of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. For Dino Jaws focuses on dinosaurs' dinners.

But, since David Attenborough isn't available, let's forget all those micro-talents whose fame passes in nano-seconds. Top of the pops among beastly celebrities for generation after generation of youngsters are to be found in the dinosaur galleries of the South Kensington nature museum.

Their ongoing attraction is rivalled only by the cases of ancient Egyptian mummies in the British Museum. (Whatever became of the daddies I wonder?)

The newly-opened family show - aimed at children from four onwards - focuses on the 10 most leeringly life-like animatronic models you will ever have seen outside Jurassic Park and its TV spin-offs. Actually, they're even better than that in the flesh (or, rather, the latex).

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We have all pondered the mystery of what killed off the dinosaurs - a drought, an Ice Age, a volcanic eruption, a meteorite strike - but what did these mighty prehistoric beasts live on?

Well, I know that tyrannosaurus rex was a fast-food meat-eater, biting into living lunches on the hoof.

“Everyone knows that T Rex was a meat-eater,” retorts Angela Milner, Natural History Museum dinosaur expert. “But can you tell me what baryonyx ate, and have you seen the sinister evidence of what coelophysis had for dinner?”

Barry and Celia Who? Haven't a clue actually (naturally).

Ignoring my infantile question and comment, Dr Milner continues: “Visit our museum over the summer and you will become a dino-scientist and study dinosaur jaws, claws, guts and even poo, to discover what dinosaurs ate, using the same techniques that scientists use.”

Oh dear, I should have guessed that we'd have to look at this question from both ends of the intestine, as well as at all points in between.

Still, for the most part, stirring the fossilised entrails is good clean fun. As I have just discovered…

Entering the glorious Natural History Museum - one of London's most beautiful and best-used buildings as it throngs with eager visitors - we divert from the galleries where entry is very properly free to the paid-for-bit housing this costly blockbuster of a summer show.

Stepping back millions of years - courtesy of those 10 models, fossil evidence, hands-on exhibits and scientific insights - we find ourselves in a wild world populated by ravenous dinosaurs.

It wasn't a matter of eat or be eaten in those days. Eat AND be eaten was the monstrous maxim for life and death over the 160 million years when dinosaurs walked, stalked, waddled and wolfed the planet.

From slow-moving vegetarians to ferocious, agile carnivores, the re-created lives of these mighty creatures demonstrate a variety of feeding strategies.

We come face to scaly flesh with the plant-eating iguanodon and euoplocephalus and the awesome baryonyx - ah ha, there he is! - as the beastly beast tries to scoop a fish from the water.

A large and particularly lurid scene contains a pack of velociraptors devouring the carcass of a protoceratops with their grasping hands, climbing claws and teeth for ripping flesh. Yuk.

But worse is in store. Hidden at the back of the gallery looms the deadly coelophysis - ah, there she is! - which visitors with very young children may prefer to avoid.

Fossil evidence suggests that this dinosaur ate the young of its own species. No wonder it died out!

Those brave enough to look are invited to examine the evidence supporting this alarming feeding behaviour. And of course it is pretty compelling - for cannibalism can be found across the animal kingdom to this day.

But I fear the most popular section for children will not be the scary part in which coelophysis features.

The favourite bit is bound to be a huge, steaming and stinking mountain representing more than a month's worth of euoplocephalus manure. You definitely wouldn't want to put this humming, ponging poo on your roses, even though it is wholly and entirely organic vegetable matter.

But sprogs are invited to touch and examine this Dolomite of a dinosaur dropping to see what one monstrous plant-eater ate.

Adults may prefer to stick to an authentic fossilised dinosaur turd, known as a coprolite (and looking for all the world like a harmless stone - though such fossils are now highly collectable).

As we become dino-scientists during the course of the tour, we are invited to tackle a virtual dig to unearth fossilised teeth, claws or stomach contents using specialist tools, and then to identify them.

At the risk of giving the game away, the various body parts belong to a baryonyx found just outside London and excavated by a team including Natural History Museum scientists.

Rather more realistic fun is to be had by four to 11-year-old visitors on the lawns of the museum, where they can recover the remains of two of the UK's once-resident dinosaurs - the vegetarian iguanadon and the awesome carnivore neovenator - which are lurking under the sand.

Can you find a rib, a claw or a skull from these two massive skeletons? Expert staff are on hand to help youngsters get to grips with being palaeontologists and to understand exactly what they have unearthed.

Hi-tech gadgetry is being used throughout this exhibition to connect us to the incredible world of pre-history. Visitors swipe a barcode on their tickets at points throughout the show to get diet-related clues to the identity of a mystery dinosaur.

They can then access this information after their visit and continue investigations at home - after, no doubt, browsing the giftshop with its three different books on the new display, and possibly tasting the dino-themed menu in the museum restaurant.

That's assuming of course that the sticky, steamy, stinky subject of dinosaur dinners and digestions has not left you feeling rather queasy.

t Dino Jaws is at the Natural History Museum (020 7942 5000; ) until September 3. Open daily 10am to 5.50pm. Admission £8, concessions £5, family tickets £21. Tube: South Kensington.

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