'Walking With Dinosaurs,' with life-size puppets, presents them as feathered ancestors of birds

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Jurassic Park just got a little bit more real. 

Walking With Dinosaurs — The Arena Spectacular, based on the BBC television series, will visit the Consol Energy Center Wednesday through Sunday, displaying life-size dinosaur puppets in an entertaining and informative setting. 

“Walking With Dinosaurs -- The Arena Spectacular”
When and Where: Wednesday through Friday at 7 p.m.; Saturday at 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m.; Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. at the Consol Energy Center.
Tickets: $25-$75; www,dinosaurlive.com/tourdate/consol-energy-center-pa/ or 1-800-745-3000.

“It has a lot of entertainment but a lot of little bits of science mixed in there,” said Lindsay Zanno, who has a doctorate in paleontology, specializing in feathered dinosaurs. “So you don't realize you’re being introduced to paleontology and the introduction to Earth all in one show.

“It’s about as close to a non-bird dinosaur as anyone will ever come.”

The show will feature 20 dinosaurs in all, representing 10 different species. The dinosaurs are no small beings — each weighs 1.6 tons, rolls around on six wheels and requires a team of three people to act as drivers and voodoo puppeteers. Touring, too, is no small feat — the 60-member company travels the country in 20- to 53-foot semi trucks. 

Walking With Dinosaurs will begin in the Triassic Era, moving through different ecosystems and eras and closing with a surprising fact: Dinosaurs are birds. 

This fact, imperative to the scientific world, is relatively new and provides clues about the biology and habits of dinosaurs, many of which were feathered. The show will reflect the new discovery, exhibiting puppet dinosaurs with feathers. 

“We want to help people see dinosaurs as something less foreign. [People think of] dinosaurs with the scaly skin ... but the raptor dinosaurs actually look and move a lot like a modern bird, and by adding feathers it helps people recognize them and feel connected,” said Ms. Zanno, who is the science Advocate for “Walking With Dinosaurs.” “I think it gives you a sense of connection that they aren't so alien and they move a lot like the animals we know and love today.”

"Walking with Dinosaurs -- The Arena Spectacular"

"Walking with Dinosaurs -- The Arena Spectacular"

The discovery was a surprising one. In the mid-19th century, scientists decided that dinosaurs were likely candidates to be the ancestors for birds, but the idea fell out of favor in the 20th century. Scientists went back and forth, comparing scales on chicken feet to scales on alligators and lizards.

“They argued until they were blue in the face,” said Matthew Lamanna, who has a doctorate in paleontology and is the assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

And then, in the mid-1990s, a farmer in Northeastern China dug up a dinosaur bone with filament-type feather imprints. It resembled a bird. 

“Ever since that time the debate about the origin of birds has been over,” Mr. Lamanna said. “The point of the story is that scientists argued and argued and waved their arms in the air until a fossil discovery made from a guy who wasn’t a scientist essentially sealed the deal.” 

The story emphasizes the importance of hard evidence, Mr. Lamanna said. Nowadays, feathers are considered one of the strongest features linking dinosaurs. 

One of these feathered dinosaurs is Anzu wyliei, also known as the “chicken from hell” — an 11-foot-long, 500-pound theropod. A good majority of the fossil skeleton was found in 1998 and is now displayed in the Carnegie Museum.

Its bones were first found in South Dakota and North Dakota, all in a type of rock not conducive to feather preservation. So it’s not clear whether Anzu wyliei was feathered. At the forefront of the research of Anzu wyliei was Mr. Lamanna. 

Although the “chicken from hell“ won’t be featured in ”Walking With Dinosaurs,“ it provides a missing link in the discovery and research of dinosaurs.  

“Every new discovery that we make is pushing the evolution of feathers back into geologic time, so we’re discovering more of them,” Ms. Zanno said. 

Walking with Dinos targets all age groups, and Ms. Zanno hopes that audience members get a “sense of belonging” and understanding of the world from the show. 

“The show lets you travel back in time and experience the dinosaurs, and I hope people really connect with that idea because what I have found is that when you find you're living with dinosaurs — you eat them for breakfast and they’re on your table at Thanksgiving — it’s a life-changing, eye-opening experience and I hope people get a kick out of that,” she said. 

Kate Mishkin: kmishkin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1352.

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