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Dinosaurs are extinct, but we won't let them die

For creatures that haven't been around for 65 million years, dinosaurs sure get a lot of attention.

Consider this:

Tyrannosaurus rex, stegosaurus and a brachiosaurus (he's 56 feet from nose to tail), along with 14 other dinosaurs, will tromp around the Colonial Life Arena from Wednesday through Oct. 11. The arena show "Walking with Dinosaurs," based on a BBC television series, has been touring the world since July 2007, and more than 2 million Americans have seen the snarling, roaring creatures.

In a few weeks, triceratops and allosaurus, along with a few others, will show up at the State Museum as part of a 6,500-square-foot exhibit that includes fossils and hands-on exhibits. They'll stay from Oct. 17 through Feb. 28.

So what makes dinosaurs so intriguing?

It's really pretty simple:

They were big.

They were scary.

And they aren't around any more.

"Contemporary society has always been fascinated by the ancient past, probably because ancient worlds and their inhabitants are just so different than our present experience," said Al Goodyear, a USC archaeologist whose excavation work at the Topper site in Allendale County has focused on early man, possibly pushing human habitation of North America back to 50,000 years ago.

"We know it's real. When you find a dinosaur skeleton, you know it's real," Goodyear said. "But it's just so different from anything alive today."

'SCARY AS THE DICKENS'

Jim Knight, director of collections and chief curator of natural history at the State Museum, said even if people think they don't know a single scientific name - "they know Tyrannosaurus rex."

"The idea that these animals are extinct, they'll never be seen again - contrary to the movies. They'll never appear naturally again in any ecosystem in the form we think of as a dinosaur," Knight said. "They were big, most of them, and probably scary as the dickens."

Reading the descriptions of the creatures in the "Walking with Dinosaurs" show backs up that "scary" part. There are dinosaurs such as the stegosaurus, whose tail was one of the most dangerous weapons ever on a plant-eating animal; the allosaurus, at 39 feet, one of the largest carnivores of the Jurassic period; or the brachiosaurus, whose long neck and peg-like teeth allowed it to strip leaves from high branches.

The show at the State Museum will have smaller, lifelike dinosaurs and babies, supplemented with fossils of dinosaurs found in South Carolina.

"We had a number of different kinds of dinosaurs down here," Knight said. "The fossils will be disappointing because they're little, but they are real dinosaur fossils. (South Carolina is not) a dinosaur center, but at least we had some."

Most of the dinosaur fossils found in South Carolina are teeth and toes. (Those are the first things that fall off when a dead animal "bloats and floats," he said.) "The rest of them are out there some place," Knight said.

PALEO-ROCK STARS

It's not just the ancient creatures that fascinate us. Some of the people who study and hunt dinosaurs are referred to - only semi-jokingly - as "paleo-rock stars."

That includes Paul Sereno, one of the world's best-known fossil hunters who has discovered dinosaurs on five continents. He made the list of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people in 1997. (He credited the dinosaurs and the cool field clothes as the reason for his inclusion on the list.)

There's also Jack Horner, a well-known researcher and paleontologist who is considered a model for the lead character in the "Jurassic Park" movies. (He was a consultant on the films.) He is perhaps most famous for his discovery of the dinosaur he named maiasaura, which roamed what is now Montana at the end of the Cretaceous period, about 77 million years ago.

Along with having a fascinating job, paleontologists have helped us learn more about our origins.

"When dinosaurs were just discovered, people wondered what they looked like," said the state museum's Knight. Then along came paleontologists such as Horner "who showed these creatures as herding, communal, nesting (animals). That adds a sense of familiarity to them. And that familiarity is part of the allure, part of the draw."

BIG LOVE

The appeal of dinosaurs may be universal, but it's especially strong for children.

"There are many reasons children are attracted to them, not the least of which is that they are larger than life and monstrous," said Leslie Tetreault, the children's room manager at the Richland County Public Library. "Children love big trucks; they love 'Where the Wild Things Are.' They are drawn to anything that's a little frightening."

Books give kids a chance to visit something frighteningly fun in a safe way. That's a reason dinosaur books remain a staple.

Tetreault suggested one book, "I'm Bad!" by Kate McMullan, that tells the story of a dinosaur that misbehaves.

"Kids are drawn to the dinosaur being bad. Of course he's bad. Dinosaurs are inherently bad in the minds of children. And they're in control," she said. "The power of dinosaurs being in control is alluring and attractive to children who don't have a lot of control in their lives."

As children grow up and begin to be more curious about the world and details about the beginning of time, dinosaurs still play a role.

"Archaeology and fossils are very important to elementary school children. And so is history in any way, shape or form."

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