Tourists get a real feeling for dinosaurs

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We may still be a long way from realising the Jurassic Park fantasy of regenerating dinosaurs, but, thanks to a new fossil discovery in the south-western US, we can at least imagine we are touching one.

Proclaiming itself the world's first "dinosaur-petting zoo", a New Mexico museum is inviting visitors to stroke the armour of a creature that roamed the American plains and deserts 70 million years ago.

What they are touching is a silicone cast taken from a section of fossilised skin of a duck-billed dinosaur discovered in the nearby ranges. The sensation is something close to feeling the rugged tyres of a mountain bike, with a pattern of crimp-edged, raised bumps.

"People who come here can run their hands on the exhibit and essentially pet the dinosaur," Spencer Lucas, a palaeontologist at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, in Albuquerque, said yesterday. "I think children will remember this more than reading about dinosaurs in books."

The original fossil was uncovered five years ago by a geology student, but it was only last year that scientists realised what it represented. "It's so weird that, as a trained palaeontologist, I didn't know what the hell it was," Mr Lucas said.

The fossil is about 10 foot long and 2 foot across and only a small section has been excavated for the museum's exhibit. Although about a dozen duck- billed dinosaur skin impressions have already been found around the world, Mr Lucas says this one is important because most of it is intact and in the ground.

"Only by studying it in the ground and in its proper context are we going to be able to figure out how the skin got to be preserved," he said.

The bones of the animal are also fossilised and are in place under the skin, although there is no sign of any muscle or other tissues.

The chance to "pet" the dinosaur comes only weeks after scientists in New Mexico unveiled separate plans to re-create the sounds that dinosaurs made by blowing air through the trombone-like cavities of a fossil of a duck-billed dinosaur's skull. They expect to hear a deeply resonating "moo".

What is likely to interest scientists most about the skin fossil is how tough the it was, suggesting it evolved to combat carnivorous insects.

Mike Brett-Surman, a dinosaur specialist at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, noted: "It brings to mind the picture of a Mesozoic mosquito with a Black and Decker drill."