Dinosaur Discoveries Teach Us About Extinction

By Brenda Scott Royce

T-Rex at the L.A. Zoo exhibit "Dinosaurs: Unextinct" (Photo by Jamie Pham)

T-Rex at the L.A. Zoo exhibit “Dinosaurs: Unextinct” (Photo by Jamie Pham)

We know they’re not real. Even the youngest among us knows that dinosaurs went extinct millions of years ago. Still, standing before a life-size replica of Carnotaurus—one of the 17 animatronic creatures on display in “Dinosaurs: Unextinct at the L.A. Zoo”—can be a smidge unsettling. The beast’s eyes shift; its head tilts in your direction. Is he sizing you up for a meal? His mouth opens, revealing conical teeth befitting his carnivorous lifestyle (Carnotaurus means “meat-eating bull”), and the creature unleashes a thunderous roar that sends tiny shivers down your spine. No, they’re not real, but the attention to detail that characterizes these creatures lends a remarkable authenticity to the entire display—the kind of realism that spurs imagination and causes you to wonder: “What if…?” Enhancing the effect, the display’s landscaping includes species similar to the foliage that flourished when dinosaurs roamed the earth, including ferns, cycads, conifers, and ginkos. Ahead, squeals of fright and delight surround the Dilophosaurus display. This large, crested dinosaur was depicted in Jurassic Park as being able to spit venom. At the Zoo, it periodically blasts guests with a jet of water. Kids squeal and scatter, then try to lure their unsuspecting parents into the splash zone. Among the most popular stops along the self-guided tour is a tableau showing a Tyrannosaurus rex in the act of predating a Triceratops. The scene is based on fact rather than fancy: Fossil evidence tells us that the two species not only coexisted but likely engaged in fierce battles. Paleontologists have unearthed Triceratops bones with bite marks and serration patterns corresponding to T. rex’s unique and deadly dentition.

A Golden Age
This isn’t the first time dinosaurs have invaded the Los Angeles Zoo. In the summer of 2004, the Zoo’s Australia House was temporarily converted into an indoor dino showcase. Yet what a difference a decade makes! Our understanding of dinosaurs has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. Evolving technologies (such as the use of drones and satellite imaging to map potentially fossil-rich sites) and an increase in paleontology professionals have led to what some are calling a “golden age” of dinosaur discovery. Using CT scanners, 3-D printers, and simulation software, today’s scientists can more accurately deduce how dinosaurs moved and behaved. And longstanding assumptions that dinosaurs were predominantly green or gray (shades that would have allowed them to blend into their environments) are being challenged by theories that color may have played an important role in dino society—as it does for modern-day birds—helping individuals to recognize each other and attract mates. Cellular research is providing further evidence that dinosaurs sported a more robust color palette than previously believed.

Citipati at the L.A. Zoo exhibit "Dinosaurs: Unextinct" (Photo by Jamie Pham)

Citipati at the L.A. Zoo exhibit “Dinosaurs: Unextinct” (Photo by Jamie Pham)

The designers and engineers at Billings Productions—the Texas-based company that created the Zoo’s animatronic display—incorporate the latest scientific research into their work, making for a more vibrant, more authentic experience than was possible just a decade ago.

Designed to educate as well as entertain, “Dinosaurs: Unextinct at the L.A. Zoo” highlights connections between extinct creatures and animals at the Zoo. Behavioral parallels are drawn, for example, between the T. rex—the top of the Cretaceous food chain—and the African lion, a modern apex predator. Anatomical similarities between Carnotaurus and the Komodo dragon (highly flexible jaws and hefty neck muscles) suggest similar hunting and feeding behaviors. Like the Komodo, Carnotaurus probably attacked prey with slashing bites and swallowed huge chunks of flesh whole.

The toothy snout of Suchomimus (whose name means “crocodile mimic”) resembles the Zoo’s Tomistoma, an Asian crocodilian, and points to a similar fish-based diet. After observing the Zoo’s double-wattled cassowary, guests are excited to learn that its dino doppelganger, the Citipati, similarly used its feathers to protect and warm its eggs. Fossil evidence suggests another commonality: like cassowary males, Citipati dads probably performed the bulk of egg care duties.

Specially trained guides are on hand to answer questions and show visitors how learning about the prehistoric past can help us protect our planet’s future.

Can You Dig It?
Most of the animatronic creatures are roped off for their protection, but kids can get their hands dirty at the fossil dig, an interactive activity that provides a glimpse into paleontological field work. Guests brush away sand to unearth a Maiasaura fossil, learning about the tools and techniques of the trade—and more importantly, the type of information paleontologists can (and can’t) extrapolate from bones alone.

Pachyrhinosaurus at the L.A. Zoo's exhibit "Dinosaurs: Unextinct" (Photo by Jamie Pham)

Pachyrhinosaurus at the L.A. Zoo’s exhibit “Dinosaurs: Unextinct” (Photo by Jamie Pham)

Another fun feature is a robotic Stegosaurus with a control panel that allows guests to manipulate the creature’s movement. A life-size Pachyrhinosaurus (a colorful cousin of the Triceratops) offers an irresistible selfie spot. (Be sure to Tweet your pics to #DinosAtTheLAZoo so we can see them, too!). The creature’s name—and its spectacular nasal ornamentation—are reminiscent of the rhinoceros, and like the rhino it was a large-bodied herbivore (plant-eater). Pachyrhinosaurus may have used its “nasal boss” (the bony growth above its nostrils) to butt other members of its herd and establish dominance.

Learning from the Past
Just as living animals give us insights into the lives of prehistoric creatures, the reverse is also true: We can learn much from the lives and times of dinosaurs. Their tale is a complex and cautionary one.

The disappearance of dinosaurs was part of a mass extinction event that was likely caused by an asteroid that collided with Earth and set off a cataclysmic chain of events, including drastic changes to the Earth’s climate. That event, occurring at the end of the Cretaceous period, was the fifth such mass extinction (each wiping out at least one-fourth of all species) in our planet’s history. Scientists believe we are now on the brink of another such event—labeled the “sixth extinction.” This time it is not an asteroid or comet causing the damage, but human activity. Extinction is a natural phenomenon; it’s the rate at which we are losing species that is cause for alarm. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), species are vanishing at up to 1,000 times the natural or “background” extinction rate. The atmospheric changes that occurred at the end of the dinosaurs’ reign wiped out approximately 70 percent of species living at that time. If today’s rate of climate change continues unchecked, scientists predict a similarly staggering loss of biodiversity is in our planet’s future. But just as human beings are responsible for today’s biodiversity crisis, they can also reverse the problem.

Dinosaurs didn’t have people to work toward their preservation. There was no World Wildlife Fund (founded in 1961) to preserve species and habitats; no IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (created in 1964) to assess and classify species; no Endangered Species Act (signed into law in 1973) to regulate legal protections. There were no zoos to pool their collective resources to study wildlife, breed endangered species, and educate and inspire the public. We weren’t around to protect the dinosaurs, but we can each take action to prevent the loss of endangered species today. We can learn more about how our actions affect the planet and take steps to minimize our environmental impact.

Young visitors dig for fossils at the L.A. Zoo's "Dinos: Unextinct" exhibit. (Photo by Jamie Pham)

Young visitors dig for fossils at the L.A. Zoo’s “Dinosaurs: Unextinct” exhibit. (Photo by Jamie Pham)

The Los Angeles Zoo contributes funding, fieldwork, expertise, and veterinary services to numerous conservation efforts around the globe and has been a leader in the recovery efforts for the California condor, Arabian oryx, peninsular pronghorn, and others. Supporting the Zoo, whether through donations, memberships, or ticket purchases, helps us further our conservation and education mission.

Thirty years ago youngsters investigating dinosaurs would have discovered very different creatures than the ones presented in this exhibit. And thirty years from now, we can assume even more dynamic dinosaur displays, as our understanding of these fascinating creatures continues to evolve. But even as we refine our picture of what dinosaurs looked like and how they sounded and behaved, they will always remain creatures of our imagination. Let’s work together to ensure that the same doesn’t happen to the Asian elephant or the Indian rhinoceros or the Komodo dragon—or any of the other species in our collective care.


Dinosaurs: Unextinct at the L.A. Zoo runs through October 31. Entry is $5 per person (in addition to regular Zoo admission or membership); and free for children under age 2. An augmented-reality app featuring special content (including 3-D views of all the dinosaurs) can be downloaded for free. To save time, download the app to your smartphone or tablet before you visit. Included with the app is a quiz that guests can complete to earn a small gift in the dino gift shop.


Originally published in the Summer 2016 edition of Zoo View entitled “They’re Baaack.”