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I recently worked as a writer on the Australian Museum’s TYRANNOSAURS – MEET THE FAMILY exhibition, now touring New Zealand.
Prior to this job, if you’d said “tyrannosaur”, I’d have screamed “Rex!” and started running. I knew they had teeth, I knew they had claws, I knew they were extinct.
And that was it.
Well, turns out, there’s a whole lot more to know about tyrannosaurs, and I was lucky enough to learn some of it on the job.
Making every word count
The process for writing museum panels is a long one.
- Each panel is short — some less than 100 words — but they each have to grab attention, communicate a message, and add value to the visitor’s experience.
- The TYRANNOSAURS panels had to work for kids and adults
- They also had to steer clear of any typically Aussie references: the exhibition is touring different countries, so it needed to work for audiences around the world.
- Accuracy is most important of all. I worked with a paleontologist on the panels for this exhibition, to make sure everything was spot on. Every fact was triple-checked, every sentence was scoured for ambiguity.
Ten drafts, 200 words
The panel pictured above introduces a primitive tyrannosaur named Guanlong wucaii, meaning Crown Dragon. We’ve only found two Guanlong specimens, so not a lot is known about this dinosaur. It was my job to communicate the key facts in something super-interesting and engaging. What do you think?
Guanlong wucaii: the crown dragon
Guanlong is one of the oldest tyrannosaurs known: it hunted 95 million years before T. rex.
Height: 1.1 metres tall at the hips.
Length: 4 metres.
Lived: 160 million years ago (Late Jurassic).
Discovered: By T. Yu in 2002, Xinjiang, China.
Meaning crown dragon, Guanlong was named for its flashy head-crest. Fragile, hollow and made from fused nasal bones, the crest may have been attractive to other Guanlong. Such a showpiece is unusual in a predator.
Shaking hands with Guanlong
Guanlong isn’t your typical tyrannosaur: it has long arms and three-fingered hands for grabbing and ripping. But the shape of its teeth, skull and pelvis all link it to the tyrannosaur group. Like many tyrannosaurs, it almost certainly had feathers.
Trapped in a footprint
The two known Guanlong died in the same way: they fell into the muddy footprint of a massive herbivore and were trapped. The 6-year-old died first and was probably trampled by the adult, who arrived later. Both skeletons are almost complete.
Likes: Elaborate headwear.
Dislikes: Being called primitive.