`IT'S the first time these dinosaur skeletons have been shown anywhere in North America,'' John Rensberger says excitedly about ``Chinasaurs: The Dinosaurs of Sichuan,'' a special exhibition at the Burke Museum here through Sept. 18. ``China's Sichuan Basin currently is experiencing a dinosaur `gold rush' similar to our own in the Western United States. One hundred years ago,'' adds Dr. Rensberger, the museum's curator of vertebrate paleontology.
Hundreds of dinosaur fossils representing 22 species have been excavated recently in Sichuan, among them the three ``Chinasaurs'' (see box) now on exhibition at the Burke. These giant creatures - new to Western scientists - roamed China during the late Jurassic period 140 million to 160 million years ago.
As the only US stop for the Chinasaurs, the Burke Museum has already attracted much attention from American paleontologists. A fixture on the University of Washington campus since 1885, the Burke also serves as the official state museum of natural history and anthropology.
Rensberger expects an equally enthusiastic response from the general public, because ``people in this area don't have ready access to big dinosaur skeletons like those on the East Coast.'' A 140 million-year-old Allosaurus on display here is the only dinosaur regularly exhibited in the Pacific Northwest.
More than 15,000 children are expected to tour the Chinasaurs exhibition before the end of the school year, according to museum publicist Sally Erickson.
Paleontologists find the near-perfect preservation of the Chinasaur skeletons something special, because they arrived 95 percent complete. About 40 percent of the dinosaur bones found in this country must be fabricated.
The four tons of fossils - including rare dinosaur footprints and a nest of eggs - came from Chungking, one of Seattle's sister cities since 1983. Wang Xian-gao, leader of the eight-man delegation accompanying the shipment, noted at opening ceremonies that 1988 is the Year of the Dragon in China, which gives the event a particular significance.
The scientists are headed by Zhou Shi-wu, deputy director of the Chungking Museum of Natural History, who helped assemble the skeletons there two years ago. ``At university I studied the nature of the history of the earth,'' Mr. Zhou told me through an interpreter, ``and so became interested in dinosaurs.''
Zhou admits to liking all kinds of dinosaurs, but claims a special love for stegosaurids like Huayangosaurus, the 16-foot plated, plant-eating Chinasaur. ``The origin of the stegosaur is still a mystery,'' Zhou says. ``It appeared later than other dinosaurs, yet became extinct earlier. I want to solve this mystery.''
Huayangosaurus, unearthed in 1981, is typical of the exciting dinosaur discoveries in Sichuan. The US provided a home on the range for only one kind of stegosaur, while six types have been found so far in China. That country's new willingness to dig up (and to export) dinosaurs, and to admit Canadian scientists into rarely visited areas like the Gobi Desert, has helped to open many new avenues of research.
Paleontologists, welcoming this treasure-trove, now realize that much of what they know about dinosaurs has been based on evidence only from this hemisphere.
``We find similarities,'' Rensberger says, ``because the Chinasaurs share a common ancestry with American dinosaurs. But of course there are differences, too, because of the great degree of isolation involved.''
Before coming to Seattle, the Chinasaurs appeared for one month in France, and for eight months in Japan. ``Our exhibit averaged 30,000 people each day in Japan,'' Zhou says.
The special setting at the Burke Museum, designed by Gary Wingert, includes large murals by graphic artists Meg Ross and Margaret Davidson, re-creating Sichuan Province 150 million years ago. ``We're proud it's not only artistically beautiful, but also scientifically accurate,'' Mr. Wingert says.
I asked Wingert his favorite thing about the Chinasaurs exhibition. ``When you look back that far,'' the designer said, ``the notion of `deep time' is really exciting. It demands you pull back your perspective, and makes you reflect on how incredibly changed the quality of life on this planet has become.
``Yet these three dinosaurs looked at the same moon we see today.''
Chinasaur skeletons on exhibition at the Burke Museum OMEISAURUS FUXIENSIS One of the largest plant-eaters discovered in China. Length: 45 ft. HUAYANGOSAURUS TAIBAII A plant-eating stegosaur with rows of bony plates along its spine. Length: 16 ft. YANGCHUANOSAURUS SHANGYUENIS A massive meat-eater with powerful jaws and daggerlike teeth. Length: 26 ft.