With the release of Jurassic World, we’ve been getting some inquiries from the media about what dinosaurs the Western Science Center has in our collections. While we have a small number of isolated bones and teeth from the Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation in Montana, the answer that they really don’t like to hear is that we have lots of dinosaurs, because we have lots of birds.
In general, the paleontological community’s reaction to Jurassic World has been disappointment at best (disclosure: I haven’t seen the movie, and have no immediate plans to do so). The problem is that, while the original Jurassic Park movie had a lot of errors, it did a pretty good job of portraying dinosaurs based on our scientific knowledge at the time. But we’ve learned a lot more in the 20+ years since, and Jurassic World doesn’t reflect that; in fact, in some ways it seems to be a huge step backwards even relative to Jurassic Park. One of the key points where Jurassic World fails is in it’s failure to use birds as a model for reconstructing dinosaurs. Whether or not the Jurassic World designers like to admit it, birds are the last surviving branch of dinosaurs. They also happen to be a highly successful branch; there are roughly twice as many modern species of birds as there are of mammals. Even though birds have a relatively low preservation potential due to their fragile bones, with such a successful and widespread group we would expect them to show up fairly commonly as fossils. In fact, we have quite a few species of Pleistocene birds represented in the Diamond Valley Lake fauna. These are almost all based on isolated bones, such as the eagle talon shown at the top of the page. I’m not sure what species this talon represents, but a good possibility is a golden eagle, Aqulia chrysaetos (modern example below from the Nashville Zoo): Golden eagles were widespread in California during the Pleistocene; in fact, they are the most common animal at the Pleistocene tar pits at Rancho la Brea, and there are several specimens in the Diamond Valley Lake fauna. So, Jurassic World aside, California dinosaurs are alive and well!