Lake Macquarie paleo collector's dinosaur exhibition a monster hit at Swansea Centre

COLLECTOR: Mike Dawson with some of the dinosaur pieces he has on display in the
COLLECTOR: Mike Dawson with some of the dinosaur pieces he has on display in the "Tyrannosaurs: Ultimate Predators" exhibition at the Swansea Centre. Pictures: Simone De Peak

Rarely does a pile of poo extract such wide-eyed fascination.

"Wow! It's poop!!," exclaims 8-year-old Claudia Bateman, as she examines the two lumps before her.

But this isn't any old crap. Actually, it is old. More than 65 million years old.

What Claudia is gazing at is coprolite, which is fossilised faeces of dinosaurs.

According to dinosaur devotee Mike Dawson, the larger lump more than likely came out of the backside of a tyrannosaurus rex.

"It's Cretaceous crap," Mr Dawson says, explaining the specimen was found at an area known as Hell Creek in Montana, United States.

"They've analysed the structure of it, and it's full of chipped up little bones. So it's obviously from a carnivore, and the only carnivore big enough at that time at that place was T-rex."

The dinosaur droppings are one of about 45 specimens in an exhibition titled Tyrannosaurs: Ultimate Predators at the Swansea Centre in eastern Lake Macquarie. Apart from the coprolite, most of the exhibits are cast replicas of original pieces, from skulls to a T-rex tooth.

"Feel the serration," Mike Dawson says, as he runs a finger along the massive tooth's edge. "It's like a steak knife."

Tyrannosaurs: Ultimate Predators is not just an exhibition; it is a display of Mike Dawson's obsession.

He calls himself a "paleo collector".

PREHISTORIC: A cast replica of a velociraptor's skull on display at the exhibition.

PREHISTORIC: A cast replica of a velociraptor's skull on display at the exhibition.

A former newspaper photographer, including for the Newcastle Herald, Mike Dawson has been collecting dinosaur bits and pieces for about 20 years. But he has held a paleo passion since he was a boy, when he saw his mate's Lipton Tea dinosaur collector's card featuring a triceratops.

As a result, Mr Dawson convinced his parents to start drinking Lipton tea, and he began his dinosaur collecting and researching odyssey.

"I never grew up," he says. "It's a science where every time they make a new discovery, it brings up a lot of new questions. And I find that interesting."

"Michael's collection is amazing," says Jess Dowdell, Lake Macquarie City Council's Lifelong Learning and Engagement Coordinator. "Not only is it scientific, it covers pretty much every dinosaur period, every type of dinosaur. And he's done a really good job at curating the show."

Mike Dawson's Lake Macquarie house is filled with dinosaur-related items.

At the end of his hallway is a life-size sculpture of a T-rex's head. Mr Dawson has called that sculptured head Bubbles, and it is greeting visitors at the entrance of the Tyrannosaurs exhibition. Which gives Mr Dawson a little more room at his home.

"I'm side-stepping bones everywhere," he says.

"I've got the collection. It's cluttering up the house. I must well bring it out and let people see it."

Mike Dawson's dinosaurs are pulling in the school holiday crowds. Or, at least, what passes for a crowd during a pandemic. The queues occasionally stretch down the stairs in the Swansea Centre.

"Extremely popular," says Jess Dowdell. "We're getting close to 150 kids through a day, which is our absolute maximum with our COVID-safe policy."

Among the young visitors is 12-year-old Mark Borodin, from Blue Haven.

"It's really good, it's great, it's interesting," offers Mark.

FASCINATION: Claudia Bateman, aged 8, looks at the coprolite, or the fossilised faeces of dinosaurs, on display.

FASCINATION: Claudia Bateman, aged 8, looks at the coprolite, or the fossilised faeces of dinosaurs, on display.

Mike Dawson asks Mark if he has seen Jurassic Park. He has. The paleo collector points out that the velociraptors in the hit movie were much larger than in reality.

"Did you see the skulls over there?," Mr Dawson says. "They were only little, weren't they?"

Mike Dawson acknowledges movies such as Jurassic Park have helped make dinosaurs such as the T-rex into household names. But he takes issue with the characterisation of the T-rex.

"In every movie, they've got them staggering around, roaring," he said. "They were ambush hunters, they'd just quietly stand in a forest, they didn't give away their position."

Jess Dowdell says the movie star status of the dinosaurs helps bring in the crowds.

"Pop culture always helps," she says. "Dinosaurs are part of what kids grow up with, with movies and books.

Mike Dawson holds a cast replica of a T-rex's tooth. Picture: Simone De Peak

Mike Dawson holds a cast replica of a T-rex's tooth. Picture: Simone De Peak

"But I think generally they're also an unknown, they're not something that we're used to seeing, that we understand. So they have that imagination, or fantasy element, to it that people are just drawn to."

Then there's the crowd-pulling quality of the coprolite.

"Probably smelly," says Mark Borodin.

"No, that's fossilised," assures Mike Dawson. "That'd be all stone now."

Tyrannosaurs: Ultimate Predators is at the Swansea Centre until August 23.