In July, some very old guests visited New Jersey: dinosaurs! If I had the time for the four-plus hour drive from Boston, I would have definitely gone to the Walking With Dinosaurs show. When I was little, my mom painted my whole room into a dinosaur mural. I had a Stegosaurus on one wall, an Apatosaurus (a.k.a. Brontosaurus) on another and even a Velociraptor tucked under the window. It was amazing. There was, however, one crucial difference between my dinosaurs and the ones coming to New Jersey: feathers.

Although scientists still disagree over the details, most paleontologists have concluded that at least some dinosaur lineages had feathers or feather–like structures. There is fossil evidence that the theropod lineage, which includes such celebrities as Tyrannosaurus rex and Deinonychus, had feathers. This is also the branch of the dinosaurs some birds have evolved from. Other lineages show little or no evidence of feathering despite much better fossil records: Ornithischians (think Triceratops or Stegosaurus) only had the most basic feather–like filaments, and sauropods, or lizard–hipped dinosaurs, seem not to have been feathered at all. The tricky part isn’t actually figuring out which dinosaurs had feathers, but when they got them. One hypothesis suggests that most dinosaurs started out with feathers, which would mean feathering is an ancestral trait, and certain branches lost the trait over time. Another hypothesis posits that feathering arose in dinosaur lineages later, meaning feathering is a derived trait developed in response to environmental pressures.

As far as Walking With Dinosaurs goes, it doesn’t matter when dinosaurs got their feathers so much as that they did. Sonny Tilders, the creator of the show, is passionate about teaching kids through scientifically accurate entertainment, so he’s decided to add feathers to the raptors as well as the T. rex mother and baby that appear in the show. He wants to balance accessibility with respect for his audience members’ curiosity and knowledge; as he says, “Talking down to kids tunes them out faster than anything.” And with the current focus on getting kids interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, shows like Mr. Tilders’s are invaluable. Getting kids interested in science and capable of interpreting scientific facts will help them succeed not only in their classes down the line, but also as they interact with science for the rest of their lives.

Science has become a much larger part of everyday life than it used to be: our cars, houses, entertainment and job environments all rely on more complex systems than ever before. For the kids attending a dinosaur show, that spark of interest can grow into a lifelong fascination with how things work and how we go about studying the natural phenomena we don’t yet understand—and that’s fantastic news. Science–literate kids tend to grow into science–literate adults who care about the progress of our collective understanding of the universe and who are able to consider problems from a multitude of angles. They might figure out how to more efficiently convert solar energy to electricity, or even to skip the electricity altogether and power our devices with the sun itself. They might become doctors. They might make something even cooler than bendable Fabric PCs that use e–paper—but they have to get interested in science first. And I am stoked that there’s a man with feathery animatronic dinosaurs to help get the ball rolling.

Did You Know?

A team of researchers out of the University of Texas at Austin has discovered a variety of melanosomes in dinosaur fossils. Melanosomes are microscopic structures that vary in shape, and these variations determine the coloring of animals. In modern mammals and birds, round melanosomes produce red pigment, while elongated melanosomes produce black. Although the researchers are unsure which structures were responsible for which colors in dinosaurs, they are certain that dinosaurs were much more colorful than modern turtles and lizards.