Dinosaur show brings fossils, history, kids together

Third grader Cameron Wildes had to laugh at the thought of a live tyrannosaurus rex at the South Whidbey Intermediate School Thursday when he and classmate Mitch Worthy found out just how sharp the teeth were in the animal
Third grader Cameron Wildes had to laugh at the thought of a live tyrannosaurus rex at the South Whidbey Intermediate School Thursday when he and classmate Mitch Worthy found out just how sharp the teeth were in the animal's fossilized skull.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

If it was not for children, the bones of dinosaurs might have taken a long time to see the light of day again.

In the 1820s, it was an 11-year-old girl who discovered one of the first dinosaur bone deposits ever seen by human eyes. At the turn of the 20th century, it was an 8-year-old girl, Ruth Mason, who sparked the modern fascination with dinosaurs. She found the world's largest dinosaur graveyard near a river on her parents' South Dakota ranch, a graveyard that has yielded the finest dinosaur skeletons in museums today.

And on Thursday, about 300 members of another generation of children became "dinosaur detectives" when the history of the "terrible lizards" came to visit them in their school.

Armed with replicas and real fossilized bones of a type usually seen only behind glass and velvet ropes at museums, Sea-Tac paleontologist Terry Wentz gave children at the South Whidbey Intermediate School a rare, hands-on look at the science of discovering dinosaurs. Wentz, who was one of the principal paleontologists who helped discover and dig up the two most complete tyrannosaurus skeletons ever found, turned the school into a museum and the children into pre-history fanatics.

And why not, since kids make some of the best colleagues on a dinosaur hunt.

"Children and their discoveries are crucial," he said, referring to Mason and an 11-year-old boy who discovered a triceratops skull on one of his bone digs. "Kids were right there with the adults."

In a 45-minute presentation that included giant rib bones, huge t-rex vertebrae, dinosaur eggs, fossilized footprints and kid-popular fossilized dinosaur feces, Wentz gave students at both the intermediate and visitors from the primary school what will probably be the best dinosaur show they will ever see. Then, he did something unheard of in any museum -- he allowed the kids to touch the fossils.

The star of the show was the full-size, resin replica of the skull of a tyrannosaurus nicknamed Stan. Dug up by Wentz and other paleontologists about 10 years ago, Stan is the second-best preserved example of that animal ever found. Fifth grader Hunter Rawls was entranced with the size of the thing. Sticking their heads between teeth exceeding a foot in length, they concluded they'd hardly make a snack for a living t-rex.

"It's huge," Rawls said.

Other fossils in Wentz's collection also drew crowds, even those not associated with the giant meat eater. Children in the first of four sessions given by Wentz over the course of the day cooed when he brought out the 3-inch horn of a baby triceratops. Moments later, exclamations of "Gross!" and "Eww!" came from the kids when Wentz showed them samples of fossilized dinosaur feces.

The school children were flawless in answering dinosaur questions posed to them by Wentz. They were even able to guess what may have put an unusual hole in Stan's big t-rex skull: Another t-rex.

The show, which came at the bargain price of $375 to the school, was perhaps the biggest-ever hit ever with the students. Intermediate school principal Doug Hale said it fit well with units currently being taught by the school's teachers.

"I'm just getting rave reviews," he said.

Hale enjoyed himself so much that he couldn't resist playing with an interactive dinosaur dig map that made roaring noises during Wentz's demonstration. Apparently there's nothing like a dinosaur to bring out the kid in everyone.

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