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Recreating the lost world

The Restless Planet, a dinosaur theme park in Dubai, will feature 34 different species.


The Restless Planet, a dinosaur theme park in Dubai, will feature 34 different species

It took David Schwimmer's character of Ross in the American sitcom Friends to bring paleontology mass recognition.

Surprising, considering the enormous success that movies such as Jurassic Park and its sequel The Lost World enjoyed.

A computer-generated image of what the Restless Planet will look like

Dr Michael Dixon, Director of London's Natural History Museum, is not bothered by Ross.

"As long as the cause of science benefits and it's done by an accurate representation, it doesn't matter who or how," he tells Weekend Review on his recent visit to Dubai.

Dr Dixon was in the city to discuss the Restless Planet, a dinosaur theme park that will feature 34 different species of dinosaurs, which will be programmed to move, roar and even walk.

According to members on Dr Dixon's team the models will even track visitors with their eyes as they travel back in time to experience one of Earth's prehistoric enigmas.

"The fascination with dinosaurs is innate in all of us and each generation of children that comes along has this curiosity for them," says Dr Dixon.

"We see that in London with our 3.4 million visitors a year coming through the museum and their unanimous interest in our paleontology exhibits."

It could be the existence of dinosaurs going back as far as 220 million years ago or their size or the mystery surrounding their extinction that makes them intriguing to people across all age demographics and cultures.

"I can't say what it is that makes them so incredible. But I can confidently say that ‘wow' factor cannot be recreated."

The Restless Planet is expected to open in early 2008 and is part of the City of Arabia, which is one of the many projects of Dubailand.

It is best described by Dr Dixon as a "virtual Jurassic Park in that the main exhibition areas will have moving dinosaurs. You will travel through scenes involving dinosaurs in spectacular ways and some of it will be like being amongst living dinosaurs".

The half-a-million square foot, fully air-conditioned theme park also plans to have a scientific exhibition with the fossil remains of real dinosaurs.

A recent exhibit of a mobile Tarbosaurus that was on display at this year's Arabian Travel Market was a sample of what would be on offer at the Restless Planet.

The 7-metre long, 4-metre high and 1.8 ton heavy model was made of a stainless steel frame covered with specially handcrafted foam.

A patented silicon layer covering the foam was made in such a way that it resembled indented skin, which was then daubed with shades of paint for a realistic effect.

The frame was packed with a host of cylinders that facilitated movement and made the animal model curl its lip, move its eyes, swing its head from side to side and even lunge forward.

Life-size Animatronics models will exist in front of a computer generated backdrop that will display prehistoric scenes that could vary from a herd of dinosaurs or just marvellous landscapes.

No risk factor

"The technologies are all known — tried and tested — so there's absolutely no risk factor at all. This project will just bring the different technologies together and it will do so on an unprecedented scale," Dr Dixon says.

A Tarbosaurus model at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai

With considerable focus and attention devoted to more contemporary global issues such as climate change, cynics may be quick to question the importance or even the necessity of paleontology research, but Dr Dixon believes in true scientific fashion that the study of the past offers a better understanding of the world today and will definitely play a pivotal role in solving the problems of the future.

"One of our roles at the Natural History Museum in addition to the informing and educating and entertaining is to instil within our younger visitors a strong sense of scientific principle," Dr Dixon says.

"We always like to encourage children to inculcate a scientific rationale and hopefully create an interest in the sciences that hopefully will translate into a career choice for them later on."

With many countries and universities reporting a drop in the students' interests in the sciences, particularly research, Dr Dixon strongly believes that cashing in on the absorption with dinosaurs is a great way of inducting that interest.

"In a sense, dinosaurs are the root [and route] to that process. We've had many exhibits on fossils and dinosaurs that are extremely popular and even travel to other countries, so it's a hope that the Restless Planet will have the same effect on young minds," he says.

So were there dinosaurs in this part of the world?

There's a really long pause and after much deliberation, Dr Dixon says, "I don't know enough about the geology about this part of the world to say that dinosaurs didn't roam across these lands. Certainly the places that you would look for dinosaur remains would be very old rock structures that are 55 million years old or older and I'm thinking that in Dubai right now there are very few areas that you could look for dinosaur remains. So it would very hard to ascertain that."

"However the presence of so much oil in this region is an indication of the existence of a shallow sea and a heavily wooded area that would be recreated in the Restless Planet. Visitors would be able to experience what Dubai was like millions of years ago," he says.

Exploration projects

Dinosaur fossils have been discovered on all continents and it is believed in scientific circles that previously unexplored areas might also reveal fossils of some sort.

The large-scale project is hoped to fire the imagination and interest within people in the region to fund potential projects for exploration and excavations.

"There hasn't been much research in this part of the world with regards to paleontology but that doesn't mean that there aren't any remains."

Despite the universal and timeless appeal of the large animals, Dr Dixon concedes that there isn't as much money as there should be in paleontology.

"It's the same story as any scientific research. Money and funding always depends on our own innate interest."

He is not entirely comfortable talking about funding but is more than keen on highlighting the outcomes of effective research.

Until recently the archeoptryx was the subject of a debate as to whether it actually flew.

Despite it having the necessary elements required to fly, such as feathers, and a proper wing structure, scientists were unsure about its relationship with the modern-day bird.

"The Natural History Museum had an excellent fossil of