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From Dinosaur Heat to Palaeontology

The Jurassic Park franchise has successfully made dinosaurs a popular Hollywood theme and merchandise. Yet, these striking giants are more than animated sculptures – they are a key factor in the evolutionary chain that deserves serious research effort. For this reason, Dr. Michael Pittman from the Department of Earth Sciences produced Hong Kong’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on geology, dinosaurs and evolution, starts on 8 February 2017 on edX.

One important reason for studying dinosaur is that their descendants might still be living among us. Dr. Pittman is devoted to proving that birds, the feathered animal we see day in day out, are a type of carnivorous dinosaur. If successful, it would be a breakthrough in our understanding of the physical evolution of birds, for example, how they make sounds and how they assemble their bodies to fly. The evolutionary links between dinosaurs and birds is also what enabled the Jurassic Park producers to simulate the sound of the dinosaurs in the film “because their larynx (vocal box) looks quite similar to their closest relatives – birds,” Dr. Pittman elaborated in an interview for

Another purpose for producing a dinosaur MOOC in Hong Kong is to properly capture the dinosaur fever in the city. As a Hong Kong raised Londoner, Dr. Pittman finds it unfortunate that palaeontology is not a popular subject in Hong Kong despite people’s immense enthusiasm in dinosaurs. For instance, over a million people visited the Legends of the Giant Dinosaurs exhibition held at the Hong Kong Science Museum last year. As the only dinosaur expert in Hong Kong, Dr. Pittman feels that it is his responsibility to open up more channels for dinosaur enthusiasts in Hong Kong to explore the palaeontology field. Against this backdrop, Dr. Pittman teamed up with Professor Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Beijing, to produce Hong Kong’s first ever MOOC on dinosaur.

To give MOOC takers a real taste of the environment that housed the Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus rex and others, many of the MOOC lectures were filmed in the Gobi Desert in northern China. The dinosaur hunters also examined samples of fossil and ancient rocks to reconstruct the ecosystem that nurtured dinosaurs. The key is to vividly present this ancient animal before viewers’ eyes. “It takes a lot of work to get the MOOC into an attractive video format, so having a strong inspiration for it was very important,” said Dr. Pittman.

Hopefully, with more palaeontology enthusiasts and new fossil discoveries, future Hollywood blockbusters on dinosaurs will bear a closer resemblance to what actually happened over 150 million years ago.

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