The “Great Russian Dinosaur Exhibition” is the largest and the most complete traveling exhibition of the fossil tetrapods in the world. It reflects the most important stages in the development of the vertebrates - (1) the time of the origin of the mammals and (2) the age of dinosaurs.
Here are some figures. Among 60 specimens of the exhibit there are 17 complete and mounted skeletons ranging from 70 cm long Psittacosaurus to 8 m long Tyrannosaurus and 10 m long Saurolophus. The geographic range of the specimens is from the northern part of European Russia to Mongolia. Many specimens are unique and one-of-the-kind, for instance, the skeleton of a primitive thecodont Garjainia, mammal-like reptile Titanophoneus and gliding reptile Sharovipteryx.
Only 10 specimens out of 60 are casts. In the other words, the exhibit represents 84% rear paleontological material.
Here are some facts about the most interesting specimens.
The labyrinthodonts (amphibians), parareptiles and theromorphs were among the most ancient tetrapods.
The labyrinthodont amphibians were the very primitive group whose body structure was intermediate between their ancestors (sarcopterygian fishes) and the real terrestrial tetrapods. Labyrinthodonts were superficially similar to crocodiles. They lived in water and were probably fish eaters. Some of them could grow up to 4 to 5 meters long. Different labyrinthodont lineages gave rise to all the other tetrapods. The exhibition demonstrates different kinds of labyrinthodonts, such as batrachomorphs (from Thoosuchus with a skull of 7 cm long to Eryosuchus with a skull of 60 cm long and Parothosuchus with the body length of 170 cm) which scientists believe to be the ancestors of the recent frogs, small seymouriamorphs (Ariekanerpeton) probably ancestors of parareptiles, anthracosauromorphs (Chroniosaurus) - primitive relatives of the true reptiles and theromorphs.
Parareptiles were widely distributed during the Paleozoic era. They were the ancient ancestors of the turtles. One of the earliest turtles - the small 150 million year old Yaxartemys is includes to the list of our exhibit. There were many different kinds of parareptiles. The collection includes small lizard-size procolophons (Nyctiphruretus, Tichvinskia, Kapes) giant 3 meters long pareiasaur (Scutosaurus) and very unusual flat-headed Lanthanosuchus.
The theromorphs (“mammal-like reptiles”) were the most advanced animals of the Paleozoic time. They were distant ancestors of mammals and, therefore, of ourselves. The Paleontological Institute has the unique collection of theromorphs. Here we demonstrate the primitive pelycosaurs (herbivorous Ennatosaurus and small insectivorous Mesenosaurus) and various higher therapsids such as large saber-toothed predators Inostrancevia and Biarmosuchus. The giant 3.5 meters long herbivorous Estemmenosuchus was one of the biggest terrestrial animals of that time. Medium-sizes therocephals (“mammal-head”) Scylacosuchus and Viatkosuchus were related to the direct ancestors of mammals.
Almost all animals, mentioned above lived more then 250 million years ago.
Of the great diversity of the Paleozoic theromorphs only some small animals survived into the Mesozoic. Some of these animals already become true mammals (though quite primitive ones). There is unique tiny complete skeleton of the Mesozoic mammal Asiatherium.
During the beginning of the Mesozoic era there were also some herbivorous theromorphs- dycinodonts (Lystrosaurus, Delectosaurus). The most advanced reptiles, thecodonts, also appeared (Garjainia with the body up to 3 meters long). These large carnivores may have caused the final extinction of the herbivorous dycinodonts. Later they have spread all over the Earth, and gave rise to the dinosaurs.
The Mesozoic era was the age of reptiles, and, especially dinosaurs. There were also diverse lizards, turtles, crocodiles and small mammals. The oceans were inhabited by the giant carnivorous pliosaurs (the skull of the six- meter long Liopleurodon is on display) and their numerous relatives.
Dinosaurs. The dinosaurs were derived from the diapsid reptiles called thecodonts (this Latin word refers to the special way in which the teeth of those animals were attached to the jaws). The thecodonts are represented in the exhibit by a predator Garjainia. The thecodonts gave rise not only to the dinosaurs, but also to the crocodiles, crocodile-like champsosaurs (very gracile skull of Tchoiria), flying reptiles (pterosaur Sordes) and, according to one of modern hypothesis, to the birds.
Although all dinosaurs are united by the same name, they include two distinctly different groups, Saurischia and Ornithischia. These groups were probably derived from different thecodont lineages.
The most spectacular Saurischian in the exhibit is the gigantic Tyrannosaurus bataar. It is Asian relative, and probably the ancestor, of the North American Tyrannosaurus rex.
There is also an interesting reconstruction of the mode of life of the carnivorous medium-size Deinonychus from North America. It was generally believed that this animal lived in open plains, formed packs and hunted other dinosaurs. The analisis of the limb structure of Deinonychus has proved that this animal could have been a good tree climber, like modern leopards.
Duck-billed ornithischian dinosaur Saurolophus was one of the largest bipedal animals of all times. In the upright position it could reach up to 7 to 8 meters high and weight over 9 tons. The separate hind limb that stands beside the Saurolophus skeleton belonged to a giant specimen of just this size.
Many ornithischian dinosaurs have returned to a quadrupedal locomotion. Small herbivorous Psittacosaurus was one of the most numerous dinosaurs in Central Asia during the Early Cretaceous time. They could walk both on two and on four legs, depending on circumstances. They most probably lived in herds, because it was easier to protect themselves from predators this way. Psittacosaurus is currently believed to be ancestor of the horned dinosaurs, or ceratopsids. Near the skeleton of Psittacosaurus you see the skeleton of a primitive ceratopsid Protoceratops from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia. The largest protoceratopses were up to 4 meters long. Some of their kind entered North America and gave rise to numerous descendants, for instance, to well known Triceratops and Styracosaurus.
As the majority of reptiles, all dinosaurs were egg-laying animals. Some dinosaurs protected their nests and even took care of their young. Many nests of the mesozoic reptiles were found in Mongolia. You can see the nest of Protoceratops with more than 30 eggs arranged in two layers.
During the Mesozoic era, many groups of animals were trying to develop flight. World-famous Longisquama and Sharovipteryx illustrate some of the least successful attempts. Pterosaurs were better adapted to flight, but only birds managed to colonize aerial environment completely (three small eggs of mesozoic bird Gobipteryx are on display).
After the extinction of the dinosaurs, the Cenozoic era began the age of birds and mammals. The well-known Hipparion, the ancestor of modern horse, represents this time.