The San Diego Natural History Museum's new Fossil Mysteries exhibit is the result of five years of collaboration between hundreds of paleontologists and artists. A survey of fossil discoveries made in the Southern California and Baja California regions during the past 25 years, Fossil Mysteries is a big deal for the museum-it's been 15 years since the museum last added a permanent exhibit, and this one boasts a hefty $8 million price tag.
The folks at the museum have been so excited about Fossil Mysteries that they counted down its July 1 opening on their website, and like the dropping of the ball in New York's Times Square-minus all the confetti and loud noises-it has arrived.
The exhibit is a 10,000-square-foot shrine dedicated to what our region was like a hell of a long time ago.
"People should expect to really get an idea of the history and diversity of life San Diego has had in the past 75 million years," said museum paleontologist Brad Riney. "The ammonites are particularly interesting." Ammonites are mollusks that existed 65 million years ago; they look like iridescent snail shells. Keen on including even the smallest of details, the museum staff made sure to include the little guys.
The big guys, several dinosaurs and a sea cow, are displayed as half skeletal form, half with flesh. Sloths and sabertooth cats lurk throughout the exhibit, too.
The realness of the models is a testament to the work of the artists. "It's not like a billboard you drive by," said Jim Melli, a staff artist at the museum. "People will be looking up close at these things. We spent a lot of time making sure we got details like the plants or the dinosaur's skin texture right. We have to make sure nothing looked like fiberglass."
Perhaps the main attraction-or at least the biggest attraction-is the 34-foot ancient Megalodon shark suspended from the museum's ceiling. It's the only full-size depiction of the now-extinct species in the country. "Meg," as the staff dubbed the shark.
Fossil Mysteries offers hands-on games and other interactive displays that can be tinkered with to access information. An electronic map allows you to examine the world on a geological timescale. You can see how seismic waves and tectonic plate shifts have resulted in continents breaking apart. Spin the dial beyond 2006 and the continents slowly begin to come back together.
"We're going to be a monolithic continent again," said museum spokesperson Jessica Holmes. "Isn't that amazing?"
Fossil Mysteries is now on view at the San Diego Natural History Museum, 1788 El Prado in Balboa Park. 619-232-3821. www.sdnhm.org.