Dino Soar: A Colossal Addition to the Museum of Natural History
From gemstones to dinosaur bones, there are marvels of the past sitting in the earthen depths below our very feet. And it is these wonders that are on full display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s new exhibit, Rare Earth, set to open on Saturday, June 11. With over 200 gems, minerals, and geological oddities, Rare Earth will explore the aesthetic, cultural, and scientific value of these precious stones, but there are two specimens that particularly stand out in the exhibit – a complete Triceratops horridus skull and a massive pair of Columbian Mammoth tusks – that are generously on loan from private dinosaur collector (and Montecito resident) Martin Jenkins.
These impressive bones will be on display throughout the duration of the exhibit, with the Columbian Mammoth tusks forming part of Martin’s donation to the Museum’s permanent collection. They will live on in the museum’s Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth display after the exhibit ends on September 5. I recently visited the museum to meet with Martin and the staff to look at these ancient fossils and get a first glimpse of the upcoming exhibit. Entering the Fleischmann Auditorium, where the exhibit is located, one is hit with a kaleidoscopic burst of sparkling gemstones and mesmerizing minerals. Walking deeper into the space, two horns began protruding through the dazzling display of glowing crystals and vibrant rock forms. Getting closer, one is faced with the full flaring skull and distinctive three horns of a Triceratops horridus. Surrounded by flora décor, the skull stands proud and momentous, as if it just burst out of the history books and into the exhibit space.
Upon seeing the Triceratops horridus skull, the first impact is its size – but this is actually a juvenile – an adult triceratops skull would be two to three times as big. Albeit smaller, the juveniles are far more rare. Because of their enormous size, the larger adult skulls are very difficult to move once they have been put on display, whereas this juvenile will no doubt move around the museum after the Rare Earth exhibit concludes. Living approximately 65-70 million years ago, Triceratops skulls look as awe-inspiring today as they must have all those many, many years ago.
A Paleontological Passion
Originally, Martin fell in love with dinosaurs as a kid (I mean, who doesn’t?), but his passion for dinosaurs and paleontology has not faded since this childhood fascination. If anything, it seems to only grow with each new one he collects. Martin ended up graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in history, and after having a family and establishing his career, he discovered the world of dinosaur bone collecting. In the 12 years since beginning, he has put together one of the largest private collections of dinosaur fossils in the world. Specimens can come from places like an established auction house or sometimes private individuals, many of them ranchers in Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota, who find the fossilized bones on their land. There is of course the need to make sure that the bones are ethically-sourced and properly collected once found, and Martin works with a team of expert paleontologists from leading academic institutions to study the science and verify the pathology of each specimen in his collection.
For Martin, the hope is that these dinosaur displays will inspire both children and adults, the way they have done to him for years. As he noted, a study out of the Universities of Indiana and Wisconsin found that children who develop “intense interests,” especially in a “conceptual domain” such as with dinosaurs, do better later in life. These passionate interests develop “perseverance, improve attention, and enhance skills of complex thinking as the processing of information.”
There is also another goal with putting more of these dinosaurs and paleontological treasures in museums. If these specimens are there, they can be properly preserved and are not subjected to the abuse that can sometimes happen outside of the museum walls.
For example, as elephants are better protected in the wild through conservation efforts, the illegal ivory trade has begun to use mammoth tusks instead to be carved into figurines or other decorative objects. Once this happens, that fossilized relic of the animal kingdom, 100,000 years in the making, is lost of its natural and academic value forever. Looking at the distinctive skull of the Triceratops horridus, one can see hints of a rhinoceros, and Martin hopes that these visual familiarities will also shed light on the importance of preserving living and endangered animals like the white rhinoceros.
Martin currently has dinosaur bones on loan on three continents at museums around the world, including the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada and the Brigham Young University Museum of Paleontology in Utah. Of note is his T. Rex collection, and he currently has “Titus” the T. Rex on loan at the Nottingham Natural History Museum in the UK, and another one, “Peter,” at the Auckland Museum in New Zealand, where they’ve seen average attendance numbers triple since putting Peter on display.
In 2016, Martin, his wife, Sarah, and two children, Theo and Charlotte, moved from London to Montecito, beckoned by the sunny skies and serene surroundings. Once in the area, he naturally found his way over to the Museum of Natural History and wanted to support his new, local museum for the earth sciences. He has since donated the very first dinosaur, a complete Nanosaurus agilis skeleton, to their collection. As he got to know the museum better, he thought it would be great to also donate a pair of Columbian Mammoth tusks to complement the Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth already on display in the museum.
Back at the Rare Earth exhibit, we begin to look at the two impressive 11-foot Columbian Mammoth tusks that will be on display, before heading over to the Earth Sciences hall to see where they will go after the exhibit. The Columbian Mammoth is the direct ancestor of the Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth and an adult would have been roughly 14 feet at shoulder height, with their smaller descendants sizing up around five and a half feet. Once the Rare Earth exhibit has wrapped up this fall, the large Columbian tusks will be moved to the Earth Hall so that they can be alongside the Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth skeleton on display there. Visitors will get to see a direct comparison of the scale between the two – and this will be only one of a few places in the world where both can be seen side-by-side. Considering the Channel Islands give these mini mammoths their namesake, there really is no other place in the world that provides the same context.
In a display nearby, I catch a glimpse of a six-foot-long tail jutting up with its legs tense and poised as if frozen in an endless run. This is the Nanosaurus agilis and the first donation Martin made to the museum. Martin mentioned that he was allowed to choose the posture of the skeleton and he was going for “dynamic.” The small, slender but strong form looks as if it is about to jolt out of the case.
Most smaller stature dinosaurs did not end up in the fossil record because they may have been carried off after death, or their bones were just too delicate for fossilization. Even the legendary T. Rex is estimated to have only fossilized at a rate of one per 80 million, so Nanosaurus agilis bones, especially a full skeleton, are beyond rare. This specimen was actually studied by the leading expert on the species, Rod Scheetz, Ph.D. of Brigham Young University’s Museum of Paleontology, and was found in Southwestern U.S. The Nanosaurus did not live in our area of the continent, mostly because this region was underwater at the time, and he would have been roaming the Southwest roughly 157 to 145 million years ago.
It is also important to just take a moment to think about the sheer window of time these estimates represent – a span of 12 million years – it is hard for the mind to fathom. And it is this kind of childlike wonder and soaring imagination that Martin hopes these dinosaurs impart to visitors, both kids and adults, because we’re all young when standing next to something so old.
Rare Earth will be on display from June 11 to September 5. Visit sbnature.org/RareEarth for more information.