Popular dinosaur exhibit now permanent at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Tread lightly, there’s a dinosaur behind that tree!
In a wooded area behind the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, five life-like animatronic dinosaur figures are yet again evoking awe and wonder from visitors in the museum’s reinstalled exhibit, the Prehistoric Forest.
During the museum’s reopening Saturday, children shrieked while walking through the museum’s Jurassic Park-like forest, coming face to face with prehistoric species like the Tyrannosaurus rex and the Stegosaurus.
Audrey Grode, 7, and her sister Esme Grode, 5, visited the museum Saturday to see the dinosaurs up close, excited to see the life-like figures in action. As frequent museum visitors, the Grode sisters have seen the majority of the exhibits the museum has to offer, but the dinosaur exhibit is one of their favorites.
“It’s the funnest thing there is here,” Audrey told the News-Press.
Other young visitors were intimidated by the realistic dinosaurs at first, but became more comfortable after spending more time at the outdoor exhibit. Luna Weung, 5, was afraid of the towering T. rex figure when she saw it up close, but pointed at the Triceratops confidently and said “I’m not scared of that one.”
“I think it’s really great for the kids to be able to see (the dinosaurs),” Wynne Weung, Luna’s mother, told the News-Press. Ms. Weung visited the museum with her family Saturday and said her young son was scared because of how realistic the dinosaurs looked, so he decided to keep his distance.
The Prehistoric Forest, a fan-favorite among museum regulars, is now here to stay permanently. The outdoor exhibit was a hit when it came to the museum in the summer of 2019, but because it was a traveling exhibit, the dinosaurs were only at the museum for a short season.
“When (the dinosaurs) left, we had so many disappointed visitors, particularly our youngest visitors, who would come back over and over again and ask ‘where are the dinosaurs,’” Luke Swetland, president and CEO of the museum, told the News-Press. “So we said, you know, let’s figure out a way to bring them back. They’re here now, so we’re going to have a lot of happy kids for a lot of years to come.”
The animatronic figures, which growl and move their bodies, accurately reflect the most current research on what dinosaurs may have looked like and sounded like, Dr. Jonathan Hoffman, dibblee curator of Earth Science at the museum, said.
“One of the things we really wanted to do with this exhibit, starting with the first time it was here, was to really clue people in on what’s going on with current research,” Dr. Hoffman told the News-Press.
Fossil research among paleontologists is ongoing and ever changing, meaning current perceptions about what dinosaurs looked like could evolve in the future, Dr. Hoffman said.
Currently, researchers are pondering whether the T. rex could have had feathers, as fossil evidence from other species of tyrannosaurs shows feather impressions. However, paleontologists are largely divided over this issue and fossil evidence is yet to be found to prove that the T. rex specifically had feathers, Dr. Hoffman said.
For now, Dr. Hoffman said the dinosaurs on display in the Prehistoric Forest are accurate depictions of the “hard evidence” scientists know for certain.
Though dinosaurs are ancient creatures that went extinct eons ago, Dr. Hoffman emphasized that paleontology is still an “active and dynamic science.” In fact, Dr. Hoffman said one of the animatronic dinosaurs will be reassigned as a Euoplocephalus after he and his colleagues discovered the dinosaur was a different species from what it was originally assigned.
“I think there’s a tendency to think of dinosaurs as kind of old and settled research, and nothing new going on, and quite the opposite is true,” Dr. Hoffman said. “We’re in the midst of a real heyday for fossil discoveries, particularly for dinosaurs.”
While the museum cannot currently open its indoor exhibits, they plan to welcome guests at 25% capacity to enjoy the Prehistoric Forest and another exhibit, “Dinorama: Miniatures Through the Mesozoic,” through April 25. To reserve museum tickets, visit sbnature.org.