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A Prehistory Lesson From the Insides Out

The new exhibit at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana lets kids explore their inner dinosaur.

July 26, 2006|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

If Jonah could survive three days in the belly of a whale, modern humans should have no problem spending a few minutes inside a dinosaur stomach.

And once acclimated, the gastrointestinal explorers can even empty the prehistoric beast's bladder by pulling a rope -- or rev up its heart by turning a crank. It's all part of a quirky new exhibit at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana.

Past a bed of nails and an earthquake simulator, a pack of dinosaurs now lurks alongside the Santa Ana Freeway. The biggest creature is a 26-foot-tall \o7Argentinosaurus \f7with a walk-in stomach.

Nearby are a life-size \o7Tyrannosaurus \f7\o7rex\f7, fossils that light up and talk, and a rubbery mountain of dinosaur dung that kids like to climb on.

Visitors can also step into a cave to play a giant video game in which a snarling dinosaur is captured with raw meat, tranquilizer darts and a net.

The goal of the permanent outdoor exhibit is to teach science concepts to kids. The $5.5-million Dino Quest program is designed to reinforce state-mandated science lessons taught in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Another aim is to boost attendance at the Discovery Science Center, which hired a former Disney executive three years ago to revive the museum's sagging fortunes. So far, the strategy is working, officials said. Attendance this month is nearly double the record set by a sea monsters exhibit two years ago.

More projects are in the pipeline, including a hurricane exhibit that features thunder, lightning and 78-mph winds -- but no ruby slippers. The fake hurricane is scheduled to begin howling in August.

Museum officials have also drawn up plans for an outer-space pavilion, complete with a simulated Martian landscape.

Like the dinosaur exhibit, the space pavilion would be wired for playing interactive educational games.

Dino Quest features an electronic scavenger hunt. Visitors can rent infrared wands, grab maps and roam the 10,000-square-foot habitat looking for fossils, teeth and footprints. When the wand is waved over a correct item, the object lights up and roars or talks.

"It's kind of hard, but fun at the same time," said Soleila Cooper, 10, as she and four friends from Voyagers Bible Church in Irvine sleuthed for fossils Monday afternoon.

Others contemplated such conundrums as whether the curvy shield behind the head of a \o7Triceratops\f7 served as a defense against predators or a way to attract mates.

With temperatures near 100 degrees, one junior paleontologist lingered beneath the \o7Argentinosaurus' \f7belly, which sprayed mists of water whenever someone inside the dinosaur pulled the bladder-release rope.

Inside the steel-and-fiberglass dinosaur, colored balls zip through a maze of tubes in a fanciful representation of food going through intestines.

None of the dinosaur innards purport to be anatomically correct, museum officials said, because scientists aren't sure what the real organs looked like.

"Very few fossilized organs have been found," said Janet Yamaguchi, vice president for education at the center.

Thus, although the \o7Argentinosaurus' \f74-by-4-foot heart is accurately proportioned, it's modeled after a human heart.

Visitors didn't seem to mind.

"My kids are in awe," said Joe Manginelli of Huntington Beach.

Even the hot weather didn't detract from the experience.

"You can only spend so much time in the swimming pool," he added. "They were getting so wrinkled we had to get them out of the water."

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