Star-Bulletin Features

The don of the dinosaurs

A "Jurassic Park" advisor
takes his batch of bones and
non-stinky coprolites on the road

By Burl Burlingame

Dinosaur bones, everyone knows, are the size of those great-aunties who have to turn sideways to get in the front door. They're big, way-big, verging on gigantic, colossal and stupendous in size and volume. And so, when "Dino Don" Lessem cackles in excitement and shows off his favorite dinosaur skeleton, it seems a little odd that it's smaller than a mouse, and the bones are the size of a human hair.

OK, so this little guy was an embryo when the dinosaur egg it was in got buried and became a fossil. And it's a segnosaurus ("slow lizard"), a Late Cretaceous dinosaur from Mongolia which could grow up to 30 feet long and ran around on a pair of drumsticks taller than a city bus.

Yeah, now THAT'S more like a dinosaur!

"Dino Don" Lessem is holding a model of a life-size T. rex emerging from an egg. He is creating a Jurassic Park exhibit that will open at Bishop Museum on Saturday. Below, "Dino Don" holds a fossilized embryo and egg of a 65 million-year-old Chinese meat-eating dinosaur, Segnosaur. There are only four such fossils known in the world.

"This is cool because it's one of the best-preserved dinosaur embryos ever found. It took this fellow in England a year to excavate it out of this fossilized egg. He used a microcope to look at it, and soap bubbles pushed through a medicine dropper to uncover it -- anything else was too harsh," said Lessem, sounding awed by the nameless excavator's dedication. "He'd only work at night, because passing trucks in daytime shook his hands too much."


While we're hunched down on the floor looking at this itty-bitty thing, around us Bishop Museum workers are assembling the enormous jigsaw called "The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park," the latest prehistoric exhibit to come to Hawaii's state museum.

The exhibit was created by Lessem's Dinosaur Productions company and has been on the road five years, the last two in a revamped edition to fit a smaller space like Bishop Museum's Castle Memorial Building. Even though former museum director W. Don Duckworth left more than a year ago, one of his last acts was to meet with Lessem and agree to host to the exhibit in 2002.

The "Jurassic Park" exhibit uses the very popular title films as a jumping-off point for examining the pageantry of prehistoric life, illustrated with props and dinosaurs created for the Steven Spielberg production.

Just in case you're wondering about the complicated process it takes to come up with an exhibition, it went something like this:

Lessem, a science advisor to the "Jurassic Park" films, looking at the piles of props left over from the filming: "What are you going to do with this stuff?"

Steven Spielberg: "I don't know. You want it?"

Lessem: "Hmmmm ..."

And so Lessem created the exhibit as a charitable trust. Profits go to the Dinosaur Society to fund dinosaur-hunting expeditions around the world. The original molds created by Stan Winston Studios were fired up to produce traveling replicas.

"The movie dinosaur props weren't made for hard traveling," said Lessem. "Everything has held up pretty well except for a stegosaurus that was whacked in a traffic accident while being transported. It collapsed onto a worker while it was being assembled, and I had this nightmare flash of having the first human ever killed by a dinosaur! But he was all right. The worker, that is. We had to retire the stegosaurus."

Although Lessem was a dinosaur fan as a kid, he grew up to become an animal behaviorist and later a science journalist with the Boston Globe. That is, until the Globe sent him on a dinosaur-digging expedition in Montana and Utah and he became enchanted not just with dinosaurs, but with the process of discovering them and the eccentric scientists who pursue this lost world.

Within a decade, Lessem became one of the country's best-known paleo-popularizers, writing dozens of childrens' books on the subject and maintaining a "Dino Don" column in Hightlights For Children magazine.

He's been the host and writer for NOVA documentaries and has traveled to Arctic Alaska, Mongolia, Argentina, Europe and Australia in search of dinosaurs.

And his enthusiasm is contagious. "Let's go to the Flaming Cliffs of the wild Gobi Desert in Outer Mongolia and find some dinosaurs!" he grins, and just for a moment, this sounds like a perfectly reasonable suggestion. After all, the Flaming Cliffs were immortalized by the Roy Chapman Andrews's expeditions for the New York Museum of Natural History in the '20s, and chances are, the Mongolian-bandit problem has quieted down since. (Andrews, by the way, was the role model for Indiana Jones.)

Rebecca Lessem, 21, shows the size of a vertebra of an Argentinosaurus, the largest known dinosaur. This is a cast of the original 2-ton bone. She was 13 when she discovered bones from an Argentinosaurus almost as big as this one.

The world is a safer place for dinosaur-digging, and dozens of new species continue to be found. Lessem even has a sauropod named after him: Lessemsaurus Bonaparte was first described in the literature in 1999.

"You know, Captain Cook discovered a fossil dinosaur in Australia, when he explored along there," said Lessem. "People have been looking for it ever since."

What's the big mystery, anyway?

"People have always loved dinosaurs, but there are waves of popular interest, and we're in one now," said Lessem. "I think it's genetic. Kids 3 to 8 are crazy about dinosaurs and then they pretty much grow out of it because there's nothing new to hold them. But now there is a popular-entertainment culture for us older folks, and thanks to people like Spielberg, there's an effort to portray the dinosairs in a realistic fashion. So they've come-to-life for most people, and that triggers your inner child. And they're so exotic and cool, too."

Just in case you're thinking that dinosaur expeditions are blanketing the earth, Lessem cautions that there are only three dozen or so professional paleontologists in the field. His Dinosaur Society has become the biggest single source of funds for research, and we're talking only about $1.5 million over five years.

"That's enough to sustain a lot of fieldwork. Actually, it doesn't cost that much to fund an expedition. A typical one might cost about $5,000," said Lessem. That makes sense when there are no four-star hotels, no restaurants, no clean clothes, just sleeping out under the stars in places like Patagonia, Madagascar or South Dakota and digging with whiskbrooms and dental picks by day.

Lessem is often joined on expeditions by daughter Rebecca, a college archaeology major. "My particular interest is Neolithic transitional, cusp and boundary areas," she explained solemnly. "I've done digs in cool places like the Aleutians. It's not dinosaurs, but we use the same tools to work with."

Rebecca puts Lessem's fossil embryo in a simple cardboard box labled "Million-Dollar Egg" and transports it to exhibits as an airliner carry-on.

"Never been asked by airport security what it is," said Lessem. "But we've had some dinosaur coprolites set off airport alarms, and it's kind of fun explaining to security guards what they are." Coprolites are the fossil equivalent of what the neighbor's dog leaves on your lawn when you're not looking. There's no mistaking the shape. And after 70 million years, there's no smell.

Something like 10 percent of all new dinosaur discoveries have been made within an hour's drive of the Argentinian town of Plaza Huicul.

This includes Argentinosaurus, the largest land animal ever discovered. It was Rebecca Lessem, then 13, who discovered one of the best-preserved spinal-column segments. She was accompanying Lessem on an expedition and led the scientists over to see what she found sticking out of the ground.

And so she led us over to see the vertabrae bone, now in the exhibit. It's the size of a slice taken out of a Volkswagen. It required excavation by jackhammer and two-ton crane. It's just one tiny segment in the spine of a creature more than a hundred feet long and weighing as much as 50 elephants.

Now THAT'S a dinosaur bone!


The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park: The Life and Death of Dinosaurs:

Where: Bishop Museum
When: June 29 to Sept. 15
Tickets: $14.95 for adults; $11.95 for youths age 4-12; seniors and military; children under age 6 free. Bishop Museum Association members are free.
Information: 847-3511

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