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INTERVIEW: Dr Lindsay Zanno, Walking With Dinosaurs – March 2015

| 12 April 2015 | Reply

INTERVIEW: Dr Lindsay Zanno, Walking With Dinosaurs – March 2015
By Shane & Tia Pinnegar

The Walking With Dinosaurs Arena spectacular is currently touring Australia, bringing life-sized animatronic dinosaurs to the modern day in it’s hyper-realistic recreation of what life for these extraordinary creatures would have been like 65-plus-million years ago.

The show’s resident Palaeontologist Dr Lindsay Zanno got on the phone after the Sydney leg had moved to Melbourne, and told us a little about how these creatures lived, and how much more we still have to learn from and about them.

Dr Lindsay Zanno

Dr Lindsay Zanno

Dr Zanno says she joined the show because of the unique and rewarding combination of entertainment and education that it provides.

“Well, that is certainly the reason I came on board. This show is rather unique in that it does focus a lot on the science and gives you a whirlwind tour of what the planet was like over the 170 million years that dinosaurs ruled and it is a wonderful thing to be involved with as a scientist because it also brings together both the science and the art to really give people a unique experience.”

Walking with Dinosaurs 02

Despite the show having a Broadway director, musicians, props, effects and animatronics and puppeteers as well as herself handling the science side of things, Dr Zanno says any juggling between the different departments vis-à-vis the need for scientific accuracy versus entertainment value, was resolved long before a single dinosaur went out on tour.

“Well, I don’t really know much about all that in the sense that I’m a newcomer to the show,” she explains, “and the script and the dinosaurs were written and created before my involvement. I didn’t really get to participate in the back and forth that they must have experienced between the science and the art.

“What I do know is, having had talked to the puppeteers and the engineers that created the dinosaurs, is they did an extraordinary amount of research about what we know about how these dinosaurs looked and how they behaved and how they moved before bringing them to life and where the science left off is really where they picked up with the artistry.”

From her scientific perspective, how close to reality are the dinosaurs in the show?

“Well, they are really remarkable actually,” she says in awe, “I mean, standing next to them, they look real. They move as if they are real, they breathe. I think they are extraordinary creations and they’re very accurate scientifically. They built individual muscles inside these animals so they really are, to the best of our knowledge, essentially what these dinosaurs looked like.”

One glance at the statistics for the touring show is enough to make the mind boggle:

20 dinosaurs, spread over 10 different species, including a Brachiosaurus which stands 36 feet tall and 56 feet long, an Ornithocheirus with a 38 foot wing span, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex that is 23 feet tall and 42 feet long.

Each large dinosaur, weighing the same as a standard family car at 1.6 tons, and contains about 433 feet of hydraulic hose, 971 sqyare feet of fabric, 433 cubic feet of foam, 53 gallons of paint and 24 microprocessors controlling movement along with 15 hydraulic rams and 6 hydraulic motors.

The touring company includes 60 people – 15 cast and 45 crew, and is transported in 20 53 foot semi-trailers.
“It really is,” Dr Zanno agrees. “I mean, even as a palaeontologist, to stand next to these things, you forget that they’re not real and it is a very emotive, visceral experience that I think everyone is really going to love.”

Walking with Dinosaurs 01

I ask Dr Zanno why she thinks the human race – and especially children – have long been so utterly fascinated by dinosaurs.

“Well, I think it has to do with the fact that we’re safe, in part,” she laughs. “That these are such alien creatures, they are terrifying and awe inspiring all at the same time – but they lived long enough ago that we can experience them in a safe and easy way.”

Kids love dinosaurs, as the proliferation of books and toys, exhibitions and movies that cater to their fascination will attest. As such, I brought my seven-year-old daughter Tia in to ask Dr Zanno some questions that we, as adults, may not have thought of.

When you discover a bone or a fossil, how do you know what sort of dinosaur it’s from?

“Well, part of the job of a palaeontologist is to know what the skeletons of all different kinds of animals that have lived on the planet, look like,” the doctor explains. “So when you first find a bone, you can typically tell by looking at its shape, which type of animal it belongs to. You also, hopefully, know which time period you are searching for fossils in, so you know what to expect [because] you know whether dinosaurs were alive at that time or not. You know whether you are in marine environments or terrestrial land-based environments. That’s part of the job of a palaeontologist, to be really great and adamant so that when you do find these bones, you know exactly what you’re looking at.”

How can you tell from a bone or a fossil, what a dinosaur would look or move like, or what it would eat?

“Well, that’s a much more complicated thing to do,” she explains. “Hopefully, you have a large portion of the skeleton. If you’re wanting to know what a dinosaur would eat, the best thing to have of course are its teeth and a skull. If you want to know what it moved like, you have to put the bones together as best as you can and what we do now is we put them into the computer and we’re able to recreate where the muscles attached on the skeleton and then model how they would have moved using computer programs.”

Walking with Dinosaurs 03

Could dinosaurs actually be cloned and bred like in Jurassic Park?

“No, I don’t think that that’s really going to be possible,” Dr Zanno says, with a tinge of regret, “or if it is, we’re light years away from that. The problem is that we’ll most certainly will find dinosaur DNA or bits of it, but to recreate an animal, you need a whole sequence of its DNA. It’s like a book that you have to read from the beginning to end.

“Even if we could recreate where all those little bits of DNA fit in the story, we don’t know whether those genes were actually turned on or off. Not all of the DNA that we have in our bodies is turned on. A lot of it is turned off. That is why you can take a chicken, for example, and turn on a gene and give it teeth. So, even if we could piece all these bits of DNA together and complete a dinosaur in sequence, we still wouldn’t know which one of those genes were active to make the dinosaur look the way it actually looked in life.”

So DNA can survive millions of years?

“As far as we can tell, yes,” confirms Dr Zanno. “We do have some evidence now that shows that pieces of DNA are probably still inside of these fossils.”

It’s incredible to imagine that the DNA of a 65-million-year extinct creature is there at our fingertips, and with a little more understanding and technology we might be able to unlock its secrets!

Have we discovered all we can about dinosaurs, or is there a treasure trove somewhere of fossils or bones, waiting to be discovered?

“Oh, goodness no!” Dr Zanno exclaims, “We’re still discovering dozens of new dinosaur species every single year. There aren’t that many palaeontologists on the earth and there is a heck of a lot of rocks out there that contain fossils so it will be centuries, I think, before we’ve really found all of the easy dinosaurs, even, to find. There is so much more for younger generations of palaeontologists to discover.”

Could this be a good job to get into, then?

“Well maybe not if you want job security,” she says, “but if you want an exciting, dynamic career, then yes, it’s a great one to have.”

What can studying dinosaurs tell us about ourselves and the world today?

“Well, look, everything that is alive today on the planet didn’t just fall out of space,” explains Dr Zanno. “It is the result of 4 billion years of evolution on the planet. If we want to understand how our modern ecosystems got to be the way they are, if we want to understand how humans evolved in the first place, we have to be able to piece together the story of life’s history. That is really what we’re doing when we’re hunting for fossils – we’re trying to rewrite the story of how things got to be the way they are.”

The Walking With Dinosaurs show is without doubt the most realistic chance any of us will have of seeing how these magnificent creatures lived all those millions of years ago, and audiences already are raving about it.

“It’s been wonderful,” enthuses Dr Zanno. “It’s great. I’ve sat in the audience and watched people’s reaction to the dinosaurs when they come on stage and it’s just really awe inspiring. People really get a kick out of it.”

Brisbane Entertainment Centre 1-5 April
Newcastle Entertainment Centre 9-12 April
Perth Arena 17-19 April
Adelaide Entertainment Centre 23-26 April

Category: Interviews

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