On this snowy winter day in Omaha I’m “California Dreamin'” about Los Angeles, one of my very favorite cities to visit. I have been fortunate to have spent a lot of time there over the years, and I’m always excited to go and experience the sun, the beach, shopping, Hollywood, literally an endless variety of things to see and do. When most people think of Los Angeles, however, dinosaurs and other prehistoric fossils aren’t often top-of-mind, but L.A. has a lot to offer, with two world-class fossil museums. The largest of these, with some incredible dinosaurs on display, is the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Located in Exposition Park, next door to the California Science Center and right between the Los Angeles Coliseum and the University of Southern California campus just southwest of downtown, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (LACM) is a great place to see dinosaurs, especially since the Dinosaur Hall was renovated, enlarged, and re-opened in 2011. This renovation was accompanied by a significant effort to repose the fossils according to the most updated scientific understanding of how these animals lived, and the displays at the Natural History Musem, or LACM, are certainly world-class.
For many years the highlight of the dinosaur exhibits could be found in the main lobby: a Tyrannosaurus fighting a Triceratops, iconic dinosaurs in a most familiar pose. Fortunately, this great display (which shows up in TV commercials now and again) still sits in the main entrance and lets all visitors know immediately that this building houses some special fossils.
In the long, relatively narrow entrance to the Dinosaur Hall are several noteworthy dinosaurs. Two stood out to me, the first of which is one of my favorite Triceratops mounts. This beautiful fossil stands in a wonderful pose, head up and looking forward. The horizontal placement of the skull is different than you see at many museums and it gives the fossil a noble air. Not only is it a terrific pose, it is also really great for getting a good view of the entire skull and jaws.
Near the Triceratops in the same hallway sits a memorable dinosaur, the 68 ft. long Mamenchisaurus. This huge animal had one of the longest necks on any animal in history, with the neck comprising about half of the total length. It is pretty incredible to see in person–it is hard to imagine constantly holding up a neck that long. This sauropod from China lived roughly 150 million years ago and was discovered in the 1950’s.
Just past those beautiful dinosaurs the room opens up into a large space filled with more terrific displays. One dinosaur that is rarely displayed in North American museums is that of the South American theropod Carnotaurus. If you think T. rex had small arms, check out those on Carnotaurus–they were tiny! Carnotaurus was unusual in that it had two distinct horns above its eyes and had a short snout. The purpose of the horns is up for debate–while it is possible that they used them to spar with each other during mating season or when staking out territory, it is also possible that they were more ornamental with the primary purpose of attracting mates. Currently there is only one relatively complete Carnotaurus fossil (the original is in Argentina), but hopefully more will be discovered to shed more light on this interesting large carnivore.
Right next to the Carnotaurus in the middle of the large hall sits one of the great dinosaur displays in North America. Three(!) different fossil Tyrannosaurus rex specimens surround a “dead” hadrosaur carcass in what is surely one of the best dinosaur displays in the world. These three Tyrannosaurus fossils represent three important stages of growth. The largest is the LACM’s first Tyrannosaurus, “Thomas,” a 17-year old adult. While it was undoubtedly still growing, it is clearly an adult animal and is very large and impressive. Next to it are two fossils that are presented in the scene as part of a family.
The second Tyrannosaurus was 13-years old when it died and looks like a smaller version of the adult. (Still pretty big and scary though). The third Tyrannosaurus was a 2-year old and is strikingly different from the others. While it would still be awfully scary to encounter in the wild, it is much more lithe, and the skull is considerably smaller. It is truly remarkable to see how much this animal changed over its lifetime.
There are a number of terrific dinosaur mounts in the main hall, including a beautiful Camptosaurus, and a Jurassic scene showing an Allosaurus threatening a Stegosaurus. One very nice feature of the Natural History Museum is the focus on the close relationships between dinosaurs from different continents and how continental drift over long periods of time explains these seemingly unusual patterns. I particularly enjoyed a display showing the evolutionary relationship between Majungasaurus, a carnivorous theropod from Madagascar, and Carnotaurus, from Argentina.
While there are plenty of dinosaurs from North America on display, there are dinosaurs from other parts of the world as well. Velociraptor has been among the most well-known dinosaurs in the United States since the first Jurassic Park film debuted in 1993. Perhaps surprisingly, few museums actually display a skeletal mount of this Mongolian favorite. You can find one at LACM, though many people may be surprised that the actual dinosaur was much smaller than the ones portrayed in the films. Other dinosaurs nearby include two from Canada’s Dinosaur Provincial Park–the duck-billed, crested hadrosaur Corythosaurus and the “ostrich-mimic” Struthiomimus. LACM displays a very nice selection of notable dinosaur skulls, including those of ceratopsians such as Einiosaurus and Styracosaurus, and the hadrosaur Parasaurolophus.
Another area in which the Natural History Museum excels is the display of various dinosaur skin impressions, footprints, and especially eggs. There are quite a few great fossilized eggs on display, from a variety of different types of dinosaur. The information near these displays was outstanding; in fact the signage and educational displays at the Natural History Museum are among the best anywhere.
Sea reptiles and pterosaurs are also well represented at LACM; the Pteranodon on display is fantastic, one of my very favorite pterosaur displays. I love the fact that the fossil and educational information are shown near eye level rather than suspended from the ceiling. I’m not against pterosaurs “flying” above the displays, but it was nice to be able to see the beautiful Pteranodon bones at eye level. In the display case next to the mostly complete specimen is the largest Pteranodon skull I have ever seen!
An important display of sea reptiles shows the short-necked plesiosaur Polycotylus, found on a Kansas farm in 1987 and stored in Los Angeles until it was finally inspected in 2008. The fossil had a surprise in the midsection: a young Polycotylus waiting to be born! The only pregnant plesiosaur yet discovered, this amazing fossil demonstrates that these animals gave birth to live young, and Natural History Museum paleontologist Dr. Luis Chiappe concluded that the infant would have been close to 5 ft. long at birth–an amazingly large newborn for a 15 ft. long mother.
There are other wonderful sea reptiles here as well, including the mosasaur Platecarpus. A large Cretaceous turtle named Toxochelys was a favorite–I find the fossils of large turtles are always popular with my sons and seem to generally delight children at museums. Another great fossil that is suspended from the ceiling is an elasmosaur that was found in California called Morenosaurus.
California is a great place to find prehistoric mammals, too. While the best place to find them in Los Angeles is about eight miles northwest at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, the LACM has a number of great specimens, most of which were discovered in California. Highlights include a mastodon, a dire wolf, a very large prehistoric jaguar, and a strange “mystery mammal” known as Paleoparadoxia, a fairly large aquatic mammal that likely survived eating a diet consisting mostly of seaweed. Although it is distantly related to elephants and manatees, it probably looked and acted more like a hippopotamus. This interesting and one-of-a-kind specimen was found in Orange County, California. Naturally, there is also a beautiful Smilodon, the famous saber-tooth cat of the Pleistocene and state fossil of California.
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY MY VISIT?
The Dinosaur Hall is the highlight of the Natural History Museum, but there are plenty of other great exhibits on display. The Gems and Minerals exhibit is one of the finest in the world; it features thousands of objects, many of which are quite rare. One of my favorite exhibits at the museum is a tour through the history of Los Angeles, starting several hundred years ago and ending in the modern city. There are also dozens of fantastic animal dioramas, displayed by location and type, such as “Mammals of North America,” “Birds,” “African Mammals,” etc. Other exhibits feature insects, seashells, and an interactive space known as the Discovery Center, where children can get hands-on experience with some of the interesting objects from the museum. If natural history is not your thing, the California Science Center is right next door, the California African-American Museum is nearby, and it was just recently announced that George Lucas intends to build his Museum of Narrative Art (opening 2021) just north of the Natural History Museum.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
The newly renovated Dinosaur Hall is quite spectacular and is a terrific setting for viewing the Natural History Museum’s wonderful displays. The Dinosaur Hall could be a little more kid-friendly, I suppose. There were no visible play areas and few hands-on displays that might keep younger children occupied. Still, there are plenty of great exhibits and fantastic fossils to keep kids of all ages awestruck for quite a while.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
Yes, indeed. My oldest son spent much of our visit walking through the museum talking with family friends who accompanied us on our most recent trip to the museum. He loved the dinosaurs certainly, but I think the very large whale fossil displayed near the Dinosaur Hall might have been his favorite display at the museum. My youngest son was fascinated by the Tyrannosaurus displays; he particularly enjoyed the 2-year-old T. rex and seeing how large and impressive a 2-year-old it was.
OVERALL RATING, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA: 41.5/50.0
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Fossil Displays:
Number of Fossils/Dinosaurs on Display: (9 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (8 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (8.5 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (9.5 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (6.5 out of 10)
Overall Rating Information:
40-50: Excellent, one of the world’s top museums.
32-39.5: Very Good, well worth spending half a day.
25-31.5: Good, worth spending a couple hours.
Below 25: Hopefully, a museum on the way up!