Dinosaurs may be extinct, but the final word on their demise has yet to be written. Did the asteroid kill them? Or was it simply the last straw? There are those who think the dinosaurs were already in decline millions of years before the asteroid hit, that their extinction was a gradual process. Dr. Luis Chiappe, the director of the Natural History Museum’s Dinosaur Institute and one of the world’s foremost dinosaur authorities, is on this side of the debate. There were many things going on back then, he reasons. The climate was cooling. The sea level was dropping. If you look at how many dinosaurs lived 10 million years before the asteroid and how many lived at the time of the impact, there was a substantial decline in diversity. In his opinion the dinosaurs were in trouble already.
The Dinosaur Institute studies questions like these. Its paleontologists teach and do fieldwork and curate and are generally obsessed with all things dinosaur. The Institute’s collection, one of the world’s most impressive, houses rare fossil materials like skin impressions and eggs, as well as one of the few fossil growth series of Tyrannosaurus rex. You can see a T. rex go from cuddly baby, to angsty teen, to magnificent adult. There’s even a full, scary-cute skeleton of a flippered plesiosaur that once swam in the seas near Central California. This collection is mostly for research, but Patron Family–level members can take behind-the-scenes VIP tours. Every so often there are public lectures, at which you can perhaps learn that while the big guys — T. rex, triceratops, stegosaurus, brachiosaurus — are gone and buried in the dust, downsized dinosaurs still live among us in the form of birds.
“So what happened?” Chiappe says. His cell phone crackles. He’s en route to Europe for research by way of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. “Could that be something that happens to us? Can we learn lessons that may help us last longer or help us cope with the environment as it changes? Understanding dinosaurs better can help us understand our world.”
The museum is now designing a new Dinosaur Gallery, and when it opens in a few years, the dinos will move from their original 1920s building to a bigger space. Apart from the intrinsic fascination we have for their ancient, dragonlike visage, dinosaurs, as Chiappe says, are icons of evolution and extinction. They call out to us from the past, telling us stories about their — and our — place in the history of life.
900 Exposition Blvd., L.A., (213) 763-DINO or http://dinosaurs.nhm.org. Patron Family membership, $185, includes unlimited admission for two adults and four children.