17 December 2007

The real Jurassic Park?

Cosmos Online
A new $1-billion theme park in Dubai – featuring over 100 animatronic dinosaurs of 40 different species – promises to take you closer to a prehistoric world than you've ever been before.
The real Jurassic Park?

Dino-tastic: A promotional illustration from the Restless Planet theme park. Credit: City of Arabia

The Tyrannosaurus rex follows you with watchful hungry eyes, but unlike his likeness in the Jurassic Park film, this robot – found at the world’s most impressive dinosaur theme park – is unlikely to snap you up for dinner.

Called Restless Planet, the theme park will be home to the world’s largest collection of animatronic dinosaurs. The T.rex is the first to be completed of 109 robots, which are being built in various shapes and sizes to resemble more than 40 different extinct species.

Once finished, the dinosaurs will populate displays emulating a range of prehistoric habitats in the glitzy, US$1.1-billion (A$1.3-billion) park, currently under construction in Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Scheduled to open in late 2008, the park is the star attraction of a large Las Vegas-style entertainment and business development called City of Arabia. While the details are being kept pretty quiet, the creators of the development, the Ilyas and Mastafa Galadari Group, have released promotional videos showing a T.rex charging at visitors and pterodactyls flying overhead.

Latest science

There are also hints that the park will be an educational experience, based on the latest science and palaeontological know-how – rather than purely thrill-seeking frippery.

“The Restless Planet provides a visual, audio and tactile experience allowing visitors to experience some of the exciting things that have gone on in the Earth’s history,” says managing director Mustafa Galadari. “Extremely realistic and scary – but at the same time, educational, the 500,000 square foot (46,000 square metre) Restless Planet, will most of all be enormous fun. A thrilling ride in a scientifically accurate environment.”

“Right now it’s pretty much under wraps, but I can tell you that it will indeed be accurate to our modern knowledge, and it will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before,” adds palaeontologist Jack Horner, of the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman, U.S., who is advising the designers of the park.

Horner dug up the first known dinosaur nest fossils, was a technical advisor on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and is purported to have inspired the character of Alan Grant in Michael Crichton’s original book. “On any commercial project I do my best to suggest things that would make the dinosaurs look as best they can based on the latest discoveries, and most up-to-date ideas,” says Horner.

Smoke and mirrors

Under dimmed lights, a series of rides will use computer graphics and high-tech special effects to take visitors from the Big Bang through the birth of the Earth, the creation of its mountains and oceans, and on to the age of the dinosaurs.

The graphics and movie backdrops are being produced by Impossible Pictures, London-based creators of the BBC television series Walking with Dinosaurs and Primeval. The robotic dinosaurs themselves are being created by animatronics experts, the Kokoro Company of Tokyo, Japan, in collaboration with experts at The Natural History Museum (NHM) in London.

The dinosaurs will be programmed with a range of movements and expressions that play out over 30 minutes and are powered by compact motors and pneumatic systems. One of the newest technologies incorporated by Kokoro is a sensor called a potentiometer, which is mounted on the outside of the pistons and detects linear movement and speed. This allows the robot to keep tabs on its own movements. If they are too fast or slow, it can automatically correct the level of air pressure going to the cylinders to make them more realistic.

“Kokoro’s new system allows us to witness large and impressively scary movements, as well as very subtle movements such as breathing and lip curling,” an expert at the NHM told Cosmos Online.

“Step back in time to when our Earth was young. Feel your heart race as you travel through a Jurassic landscape alongside gigantic dinosaurs,” says the theme park’s web site “Restless Planet is a unique, world-class natural history phenomenon.”
(Image: City of Arabia)

Big brother

Another innovation also enables the models to follow unsuspecting visitors with their eyes and heads – and even lunge at them as they walk past. The NHM has an animatronic T. rex on display that has a sensor in its nose, which targets visitors wearing red and tracks them with its head as though they are prey – guaranteed to be at least a subconsciously unnerving experience.

Each dinosaur is painstakingly built by hand and takes more than six months to construct, says the NHM. The ‘skeletons’ are made from aluminium, steel, plastic, plywood and electronics – these are coated with polyurethane foam that is carved into shape. A soldering iron is used to make indentations in the rigid foam, before craftsmen attach a silicon layer to create a dimpled effect, something like real skin. This is then treated with glues, paints and fabric to complete the illusion.

That leaves one sticky problem as far as the science goes: “Colour is far more difficult as nobody really knows what colour dinosaurs were,” says our NHM expert.

Fossils don’t betray any clues as to whether the long-extinct creatures were brown, purple or had stripes. So the scientists make best guesses for the models based on today’s animals, especially birds and reptiles.

To fill in the details on how the dinosaurs might have moved, the Museum’s palaeontologists look to the anatomy of the skeletons and hunt for marks on the fossils that betray where muscles might once have been attached.

Computer modelling then takes into account biomechanics to reconstruct the shape of the animal, estimate its weight and work out how fast it might have been able to move. This information is also based on the estimated physical strain on the bones, ligaments, muscles and joints.

“One study on T.rex has estimated that the giant flesh-eater would have been incapable of moving at more than a fast walk, making it only about half as fast as the top human sprinters today,” said the NHM expert. “Though not many people can keep up a fast sprint for longer than a few seconds, so we still might have had trouble outrunning T.rex.”

Dino DNA

The premise of Jurassic Park was that the DNA of dinosaurs had been retrieved from blood-sucking mosquitoes preserved in amber, spliced with frog DNA to fill in the gaps – and hey presto, used to grow a baby dinosaur. So moving beyond high tech puppets, could we ever use ancient DNA to recreate real dinosaurs?

Unfortunately, “there is no chance of isolating dino-DNA and recreating dinosaurs Jurassic Park-style,” says Montana State University’s Horner. “First we would have to know how to clone from DNA [alone], and then we would have to get hold of some dino-DNA, and this has not yet been accomplished.”

Scientists have, however, recently made some amazing steps towards the goal of deriving dino DNA. Horner was part of a team who reported in the U.S. journal Science in April 2007, that they had succeeded in extracting and sequencing collagen protein from a 68-million-year-old fossilised T.rex bone (see, Protein extracted from T.rex fossil, Cosmos Online). Prior to this, the oldest sequenced protein came from a mammoth fossil which was just 300,000 years old.

“I think that we will isolate dinosaur DNA, but that it will come as tiny fragments, and certainly not enough to replicate an animal,” he says.

So, at least in the near future, taking a trip to Restless Planet will be about as close as you’re likely to get to Jurassic Park.

Hilary Jones is a science writer in Adelaide, Australia.

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