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Robotic dinosaur

(Photograph) - Look at this remarkable creature. Is it not an extraordinary organism? Is it not the pinnacle of creation?

See its four flexible limbs, all connected to a backbone and each capable of independent motion. See the head that turns from side to side, the two eyes that guide it, the jaws that feed it and the nostrils that sniff the air.

If it has one failing, it is that it was clearly designed for a warmer, drier climate. And for this reason it must now wear a raincoat, woolly hat and matchingI Oh, hang on. You didn't realise that we were talking about the dog-walker, did you? No, you assumed that of the three vertebrates in this line-up, the dinosaur must be the one getting all the attention. That's not surprising, really. Ever since the middle of the 19th century, we humans - and our dogs, it seems - have been drawn to the beasts.

It was around 300 bc that somebody in China first reported digging up a "dragon bone". In the West, the earliest drawing of a dinosaur fossil was made in 1675 by Dr Robert Plott, Oxford's first chemistry professor.

But the concept of extinction had still to be formulated, so Dr Plott labelled his drawing "Enigmatic Thigh Bone", and assumed it belonged to some living species, as yet undiscovered.

A century later, a massive jaw-bone was dug up near Maastricht in the Netherlands. When Napoleon captured the town in 1795, he had the fossil shipped to Paris, where it was declared part of a giant lizard.

As more bones turned up, many in the south of England, the lizard theory held. And when, in 1841, the palaeontologist Richard Owen declared that what the rocks were giving up was evidence of an entrely separate animal, he still named it "dinosaurus", from the Greek words for "terrible" and "lizard".

But lizards or not, and terrible or not (the triceratops was a strict vegetarian), these creatures seemed the very embodiment of the new theories of evolution (it was Darwin's own collection of dinosaur fossils that whetted Owen's appetite), and soon the public was smitten.

The rather questionable brick and iron models that flocked around the Crystal Palace in 1854 were the first in a long line of conjectural reconstructions that continues today with the latest rash of robotic beasts being drafted in by museums to increase visitor numbers (the life-sized triceratops in this picture was waiting to be installed at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff).

Dinosaur hunting has been a popular sport since the 1870s, when American palaeontologists began scouring the arid North West for fossils rather than waiting for them to turn up by chance.

Their success inspired a veritable dinosaur rush, which continues to this day with the discovery of dinosaur eggs, dinosaur DNA and even fossilised dinosaur feathers fuelling our ardour.

No wonder you were distracted from what, in evolutionary terms, is clearly the most impressive vertebrate in the picture.

Weblinks

DinoData: www.dinodata.netindex.htm Zoom Dinosaurs has a huge collection of students' questions: www.EnchantedLearning.comsubjectsdinosaursindex.html Artist John Payne creates mobile dinosaur sculptures called kinetosaurs. To make your own, visit the Children's Museum of Indianapolis at: www.childrensmuseum.orgkinetosaurindex.html

Photograph by Jeff Morgan

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