"I said, 'My God! This is fantastic!' Then I kicked it and realized it was fiberglass," sighs Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "It was a prop left behind from the very first Star Wars movie."
Ryan still laughs when he tells the story. Like any veteran "dinosaur guy," he needs a chuckle every now and then as he studies bone chips and skull fragments from 65 million years ago. But it's no joke when he reveals the discovery that's had scientists buzzing for the past 20 years: Birds are actually dinosaurs.
The revelation comes to animated life in Feathered Dinosaurs: The Bird/Dinosaur Connection, a 12-piece traveling exhibit from California that opens this week. It explains the common denominator between extinct prehistoric creatures and their winged counterparts. "The question is 'What don't they have in common?'" says Ryan. "We have dinosaurs with feathers, birds with teeth, and everything else that links the two together."
There's a 40-foot animatronic tyrannosaurus rex that growls and swings her head and tail as she feeds a duck-billed edmontosaurus to her two feathered offspring. A pair of velociraptors caw like crows to show their pleasure in devouring the carcass of a protoceratops. And a raptor-like maiasaura shows why she's called the "good mother lizard" by tending to her eggs. "The way their nests were constructed, it appears the animals came back year after year after year to the same spot and rebuilt it," says Ryan. "Beautiful stuff."
To give the exhibit an authentic look, likenesses of primitive flora have been planted among the robotic creatures. "Kids love dinosaurs," notes Jennifer Souers, the museum's director of exhibits. "Adults love dinosaurs. And when you darken the room, paint the rooms bright tropical colors, and use dramatic lighting and some cool sounds, there's something exciting about it. Your average six-year-old is going to say, 'Cool!'"
Ryan can relate. When he was a preschooler, he marveled at the dinosaurs he saw in King Kong. By the time he was in college, he would sketch and photograph dinosaur exhibits at the Canadian Museum of Nature in his native Ontario. More than 15 years later, Ryan's mission is to convince museum patrons that dinosaur descendants still fly overhead. "After they see the exhibit, I'd like a nice blue jay or cardinal to sweep down as they open their car doors," says Ryan. "They'll say, 'Oh, yes. I now know that dinosaurs are still alive today.'"