Baltimore: When Critters Invade

Moon jellies are one of the species on exhibit in the "Jellies Invasion: Oceans Out of Balance" show at the National Aquarium.
Moon jellies are one of the species on exhibit in the "Jellies Invasion: Oceans Out of Balance" show at the National Aquarium. (National Aquarium In Baltimore)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In an age of flu-pandemic scares and stock-market hand-wringing, Baltimore is scaring up a retro fright-fest: a full-scale critter attack. More specifically, the Maryland Science Center and the National Aquarium are teaming up for what they're calling "Waterfront Invasion," starring giant dinosaurs and stinging jellyfish.

Cue the hokey special effects graphics and the cheesy music.

With two new exhibits, the longtime Inner Harbor rivals for visitor dollars are joining forces to fight what may be the worst tourist season in history, using the grit and camp that Baltimoreans are known for. Case in point: At the science center, "Chinasaurs -- Dinosaur Dynasty" teems with animatronic beasts and wacky-looking dino skeletons. (Check out the guy with the unicorn horn!) Meanwhile, across the harbor, the aquarium's "Jellies Invasion: Oceans Out of Balance" is "Star Trek"-futuristic with its rounded tanks of fluttering jellyfish labeled with news-crawl-style screens. (Apparently, the creatures-formerly-known-as-jellyfish are not actually fish; the correct appellation is just "jellies.")

In addition to showcasing some fearsome creatures (velociraptors, stinging nettles), both exhibits are kid-friendly, with touch-screen displays and, at the aquarium, toddler-level jelly tanks. But wait, there's more! In concert with the exhibits, the Inner Harbor is plastered with B-movie-style posters and park benches painted with tableaux of giant dinos eating buildings, a la "Godzilla." The Big Green Lizard himself makes an appearance, too, as part of July's Waterfront Invasion Movie Series (also featuring "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes," "Gremlins" and "Attack of the 50-Foot Woman").

However, the anchors of all this summer madness are the exhibits. The traveling dinosaur show is the largest collection of dinosaur bones from China and Mongolia, where paleontologists are still digging up some of the world's best-preserved fossils. This dino crop is a far cry from the familiar T. rex, triceratops and astrodon, part of the museum's permanent dino collection in the gallery just below "Chinasaurs." Among the new show's revelations are a 70-foot-long creature called Mamenchisaurus, whose impossibly long neck seems to defy physics. Then there are the names, some clearly hybrids of Chinese and Greek: Dsungaripterus (a huge flying beast) and Tuojiangosaurus (kin to the stegosaurus). There's even a fossil of one crow-size, feathered meat-eater discovered so recently that it's not even named yet.

What's remarkable about the show, says the science center's president and chief executive, Van R. Reiner, is that "we thought we [had] discovered all the dinosaurs there were." Clearly not.

Kids can touch replicas of a fossilized footprint and dinosaur eggs, skin, teeth and dung. (What kid doesn't like poo?) On the walls hang hand-painted murals of the three periods -- Jurassic, Triassic and Cretaceous -- when dinosaurs lived. But it's the animatronic dinos that bring the camp and the scare factor to the show, with life-size and almost realistic beasts gnashing their terrible teeth at visitors. But life-size, as the exhibit shows, is a little less fearsome than "Jurassic Park" made out: The claw-toed velociraptor, for instance, stood only about 3 1/2 feet tall, and his life-size model was getting his snout fixed when I was visiting one morning just before the exhibit's opening.

Dinosaurs, though, are all spring chickens compared with jellies. Apparently, those pulsing, tentacled creatures rippling around the aquarium tanks have remained more or less the same for the past 650 million years. While not all jellies sting and only a few are deadly to human, the squishy, see-through creatures act as indicators of environmental problems: Their numbers can increase in the most polluted bodies of water. Additionally, in the past few decades, jelly populations have exploded worldwide, creating such problems as destroying fish populations and clogging power plant pipes.

This gloomy theme contrasts with that of the aquarium's last jellies show, the 1996-98 "Jellies: Phantoms of the Deep," which was hugely popular, says Jack Cover, the aquarium's general curator of fishes and rain forest exhibits. "Phantoms" mainly focused on jellies' beauty, while the new exhibit is more focused on the creatures' dark side. Still, watching them pulse through the water, trailing their tentacles, can be so relaxing, "it's like watching lava lamps," Cover says.

The aquarium's exhibit details various scenarios, including fertilizer runoff, which creates jelly-friendly "dead zones" in oceans to the plight of jelly predators, such as sea turtles, which are dying off thanks to getting tangled in fishing nets and eating discarded plastic bags (which look very jelly-like to a turtle). Although the aquarium show has "You Can Help" panels throughout the exhibit, with tips along the lines of "use your own shopping bags" and "buy sustainable seafood," there's still an unsettling undercurrent (so to speak) that while the tentacled beasts of people's nightmares are out there just below the ocean's surface, it's humans who do the scariest things. Which is why it's all the more fun to pretend to be scared of some big lizards and squishy sea creatures lurking around the Inner Harbor.

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