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Dinosaurs in the Southland and from the Pleistocene to Pop Culture

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A family visits Claude Bell's Cabazon dinosaurs in 1994. Courtesy of the Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Last Saturday, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County opened its new Dinosaur Hall, a permanent exhibition featuring hundreds of dinosaur fossils and 20 complete mounts of dinosaurs and other Mesozoic creatures. The new display marks an important milestone in a seven-year, $135 million transformation of the museum, and it also brings new attention to the prehistory of Southern California.

The National History Museum's new Dinosaur Hall features the world's only T. Rex growth series. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
The National History Museum's new Dinosaur Hall features the world's only T. Rex growth series. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

In 1901, Union Oil geologist William Orcutt was surveying an area then known as Hancock Ranch when he discovered fossilized bones in pools of asphalt. The pools--today known as the La Brea Tar Pits--have since proven to be one of the world's richest paleontological sites, yielding more than 1 million fossils since excavation began in 1906.

The bones and fossilized plants preserved in the tar revealed to scientists a starkly different L.A. landscape than what we see today. Southern California in the Pleistocene--a geologic epoch that ended roughly 11,700 years ago--was inhabited by large mammals that bore a striking resemblance to the animals today seen in zoos or on safaris. Two species of elephant--the Columbian mammoth and imperial mammoth--grazed the Southern California grasslands. Their cousin, the American mastodon, joined a host of other now-extinct herbivores, from camels to ground sloths. These animals provided plenty of reasons for large carnivores, which included American lions, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats, to roam prehistoric Los Angeles. The largest of them--the short-faced bear--would dwarf modern grizzlies, standing over 11 feet tall on its hind legs.

A mass of bones in La Brea Tar Pit #91. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.
A mass of bones in La Brea Tar Pit #91. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.
The La Brea Tar Pits in 1927, with oil derricks visible in the background. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.
The La Brea Tar Pits in 1927, with oil derricks visible in the background. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.
An artists' imagining of Pleistocene Los Angeles. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.
An artists' imagining of Pleistocene Los Angeles. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.
Pleistocene fossil finds have not been limited to the La Brea Tar Pits. This eight-foot long mastodon tusk was unearthed in 1927 near Malaga Cove on the Palos Verdes peninsula. Courtesy of the Palos Verdes Library District Local History Collection.
Pleistocene fossil finds have not been limited to the La Brea Tar Pits. This eight-foot long mastodon tusk was unearthed in 1927 near Malaga Cove on the Palos Verdes peninsula. Courtesy of the Palos Verdes Library District Local History Collection.

Despite these extensive caches of Pleistocene fossils, Southern California's land rarely yields dinosaur remains. During the Mesozoic era--a period of about 185 million years during which dinosaurs dominated many terrestrial ecosystems--North America looked very different, and most of our state was then underwater. Because dinosaurs dwelt only on the land, their carcasses would have to be carried out to sea and then be buried in fresh sediment to survive as fossils in the rocks that now underlie Southern California.

It may have come as a surprise, then, when in 1967 a junior high school student named Brad Riney discovered the incomplete backbone of a hadrosaur in the sea cliffs of La Jolla. Twenty years later, Riney--by then a paleontologist for the San Diego Natural History Museum--found the fossilized remains of a stout, armored nodosaur during a Carlsbad road construction project. In all, five dinosaur specimens have been found along the string of San Diego County hills and cliffs that geologists know as the Point Loma Formation.

Dinosaurs may not have frequented Southern California, but they've retained a fierce hold on the public imagination since their existence became widely known in the late nineteenth century. In Southern California, the prodigious and long-dead beasts have influenced the region's popular culture, from roadside attractions to theme parks to fashion.

Astrid Plane of Animotion wore an outfit inspired by dinosaurs to the 1986 American Music Awards. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Astrid Plane of Animotion wore an outfit inspired by dinosaurs to the 1986 American Music Awards. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
disneyland_dinos_1966_ucla.jpg
A maintenance worker tends to a family of triceratops, shortly after the Primeval World attraction's arrival at Disneyland in 1966. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Anyone who has driven to Palm Springs will be familiar with the Cabazon dinosaurs, the landmark sculptures alongside Interstate 10. The concrete and steel structures (pictured at the top of this post) were envisioned and built by Claude K. Bell, a retired sculptor from Knott's Berry Farm who wanted to lure motorists to his roadside diner. Thousands have visited the landmarks, and millions more have glimpsed them from their car windows. The replica Tyrannosaur, Mr. Rex, even appeared in the 1985 film Pee-wee's Big Adventure. In the 1980s, Bell drafted plans to expand the roadside attraction and add Pleistocene mammals to the scene, but he died in 1988 before construction could begin.

Another imagined dinosaur scene appeared in the Southland in 1966. Walt Disney's Primeval World diorama initially appeared as an attraction at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. When the fair closed, Disney shipped the robotic dinosaurs to Anaheim, where they became a part of the Disneyland Railroad ride.

Bell's Cabazon dinosaurs--which now house a creationist museum--and the Disneyland diorama still greet visitors today, testaments to our continuing fascination with all manner of representations of the extinct reptiles. For those who want to see the real thing, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's new Dinosaur Hall is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

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Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

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