The fossils of feathered dinosaurs whose discoveries helped firm hypotheses on the origin of birds will be exhibited publicly in the U.S. for the first time this weekend.
The roughly 120-million-year-old remains being displayed at the Miami Science Museum starting Saturday were all found in northeastern China beginning in 1998 and helped quiet — though not totally muffle — decades-old debates on the link between dinosaurs and birds. Most have never been seen outside China.
"For 150 years, people argued over the origin of birds," said Matt Lamanna, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and an adviser to the "Dinosaurs of China" exhibit. "This debate was still raging in the middle of the 1990s and then somebody went to China and found these fossils."
Visually, the feathered dinosaurs on display are little comparison for their towering brethren. Those more traditional examples of dinosaurs, as the public has come to know them, fill the bulk of the exhibition space with their craning necks and their razor-sharp teeth.
At the front entrance is the Tsintaosaurus spinorhinus, a duck-billed herbivore with a unicorn-like spine on its head. There is the meat-eating Sinraptor hepingensis, with its huge, sharp teeth. And at the back of the exhibit is the massive Mamenchisaurus jingyanensis, whose 30-foot (9.14-meter) neck is the longest of any animal, so long some scientists believe its heart would have had to weigh 800 pounds (363 kilos) to be able to pump blood to its head.
All told, there are 14 giant mounted skeletons on display and dozens of other fossils. They arrived in Miami in 104 crates shipped in four 40-foot-long containers. Now that they have all been assembled, museum workers have tried to give the space an Eastern flair, with Chinese pottery, plants and lanterns, and music from the Orient playing overhead.
"We feel very at home here," said Wei Mingrui, the head of paleontology at the Beijing Museum of Natural History, one of the museums that loaned the fossils.
The rarest of finds, and the ones expected to draw scientists from around the country, are in one relatively small room. They are set into chunks of rock, accompanied by life-size models — tiny when compared with the giant dinosaurs nearby — though Lamanna said their understated presentation had no correlation to their importance.
"In terms of evolutionary significance, every single one of those fossils in there is, I'd say, 10 times more important than the giant dinosaurs," he said.
The feathered dinosaur fossils are arranged to show what many scientists believe was their evolution into modern-day birds, something experts continue to learn more about. A paper to be published Thursday in the journal Nature details the finding of a giant, birdlike dinosaur as tall as the tyrannosaur, far larger than the types of feathered species on display here.
The Miami Science Museum plans to exhibit the dinosaurs through May. It is working on organizing a national tour that would follow — something Lamanna said the public could learn much from.
"It tells the story of bird evolution," he said.