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Michael Wall, Ph.D.
Director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias

Ankylosaur model.
The Dinosaur Question

By Kerri De Rosier

After learning that the Museum staff faced several challenges in finding dinosaur specimens to display, the question was asked: are dinosaurs absolutely critical in a successful fossil exhibit? The answer was a resounding “yes,” but, digging deeper unearthed (pun intended) a mission of the Museum that isn’t often articulated: meeting visitor expectations.

Before we get too far, a brief lesson is in order to explain why we know that dinosaurs roamed around the peninsular region, which includes southern California and Baja California, but don’t have many fossils to show for it.

The big answer is plate tectonics. Steep rugged mountains built by plunging plates rimmed a narrow coastal zone when dinosaurs lived in this region. At times the good dinosaur habitat was a bit wider, other times it must have been quite narrow, depending on global sea levels and how fast the mountains shed their sediments. Dinosaurs sometimes washed out to sea, other times they were buried on land. Today their fossils are found near our present coastline because plate tectonics and erosion have lifted the seafloor and nibbled away millions of years of stacked sediments. Luckily, we can expect more to be discovered—given enough time, erosion, and plate shifts!

While the exhibition proves that there were indeed dinosaurs in our region, content specialist Lynett Gillette and curator Dr. Tom Deméré searched over North America for casts to supplement the dinosaur fossils found here. They found two appropriate dinosaurs from Alberta, Canada: an Albertosaurus and a Lambeosaurus that were also known from incomplete fossils in Baja California. With the help of Canadian sculptor Mark Rebkopf, the Museum created unique half-sculpted-skin and half-sculpted-cast life-sized models. Skin impressions from actual Baja dinosaurs were duplicated to give the dinosaurs authentic looking reptilian scales.

When neither skeletons nor casts could be found, the Museum used the imaginative genius of exhibition artist and sculptor Jim Melli, who created the maquettes for the ankylosaur and pteranodon models.

Why go through all the bother? Especially since the Museum’s collection has lots of other fossils of creatures that roamed here after dinosaurs went extinct?

“People have a really strong association between natural history museums and dinosaurs,” said Nancy Owens Renner, exhibit developer. “Dinosaurs have captivated people’s imagination in a way that few things have. So we know that we need to address their expectations in some way. Fortunately or coincidentally, our rich fossil record here in San Diego goes back 75 million years, so we catch that last little bit of the time that dinosaurs walked on Earth. So it’s certainly an appropriate and legitimate part of our story, and we also felt that it was important to satisfy that expectation, and then people will come along with us for the rest of the ride.”

“If you talk to a family focus group, the number one universal thing that they want is dinosaurs,” said Michael Field, exhibit designer. “So we look at our dinosaur fossils, and what we have has barnacles and oysters on it. So there’s a great fossil mystery right off the top. The ankylosaur, which was found in Carlsbad, has shark teeth in it as well as oysters. There’s this whole story of it dying and being swept to sea, maybe in a river, then floating to sea. Because of the armor plates on its back, it floated upside down and sunk to the bottom. That’s how the fossil was found. It was scavenged by sharks on the seafloor and colonized by oysters and eventually buried in the mud. Then it was lifted up by plate tectonics and earthquakes, and was exposed. It’s a great story. It’s the all-time best dinosaur ever found in California—that’s how rare they are.”

But do the dinosaurs overshadow more important artifacts? Deméré, who called dinosaurs a “poster child” for what asteroids can do, said, “Every museum should have a dinosaur, but what do you give up? What’s the tradeoff? What’s the consequence of making the decision? Clearly, having two mounted skeletons takes up room—but you can’t ignore the fact that kids love dinosaurs. I’ve met a number of precocious four- and five-year olds who know so much about dinosaurs. It really is an amazing thing. It certainly gives them a sense of pride that they know more than their parents. I do think it’s important: it’s a back door into science.”

Executive Director Michael Hager added his two cents: “I’m a paleontologist. I’ve spent many nights around many campfires with other paleontologists talking about this. I’ve concluded that dinosaurs are as close as you can get to fantasy —dragons and monsters. Every year, there’s a new crop of three-year-olds who want to learn everything they can about dinosaurs. It’s important because kids have to get turned on to science. If their inspiration begins with dinosaurs at age three, so be it.”

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