Thursday, April 8, 2010

Our Mascot Arrives!

Christmas comes early...or late! What in the world could be delivered in a box like this? It weighs a lot, and it really doesn't fit in our storage room, but hey, a big gift is a big gift, no matter that it is April. A few dozen screws later, and some heavy lifting of plywood slabs, and our treasure is revealed!

It's a full-scale model of a Smilodon californicus from the La Brea Tar Pits in Southern California. We selected this creature to be one of the focal points of our Community Science Center that will "soon" be constructed on our campus (yes, there are the inevitable delays). The building will house the physics, chemistry, biology and earth sciences programs, a planetarium, an observatory, and best of all, the Great Valley Museum (currently 'housed' in a refurbished old house). We picked it for several reasons: it is the state fossil of California, it lived in our immediate vicinity, and it will have a lot of the "Wow!" factor that will make the center a great place for kids to visit. Our building is being built with bond issue funds, but the Smilodon was purchased with donations and fundraisers: we sold barbecued burgers to the modern day carnivores on our campus to purchase this extinct carnivore...

Several months ago I blogged about the Smilodon as part of my "Other California" series. A portion is repeated below:

"Prior to 12,000 years BP, our state would have been an intimidating place. Packs of Dire Wolves and American Lions roamed our prairies, seeking their prey from among the herds of horses, camels, antelope, bison, elk, mastodons, and mammoths. Short-faced bears, larger than grizzlies and polar bears, would have at least considered having you for lunch. In more forested and brushy areas, the large plant-eaters faced a threat from one of the most intimidating predators of all, the saber tooth cat (Smilodon californicus).

The largest cougars today weigh in at 200 lbs or so. The saber-tooths were more like 700 lbs or more! They were heavily built, especially in the front, giving them in advantage in stealthy ambushes. Their dagger-like serrated fangs could be 11 inches long. They didn't waste time chasing their prey, they jumped, bit, and waited for the victim to bleed to death. Evidence suggested they worked in social units, somewhat like wolves (many specimens show evidence of recovery from broken bones that would have led to the death of solitary predators).

The La Brea Tarpits in Los Angeles provide one of the richest records of the Ice Age predators to be found anywhere in the world. Trapped plant-eaters attracted large numbers of predators to the pools of sticky tar, and the hunters were trapped as well (something like 90% of the specimens recovered are predators). Portions of 1,200 saber tooth individuals have been found so far, allowing for all manner of population variability and growth studies to take place.

From about 1.6 million years until just 10,000 years ago, the sabertooths and other large animals dominated the ecosystem of California. Their disappearance is linked to severe climate changes in the aftermath of the most recent ice age, or to overhunting by newly-arrived humans. The issue of the North American megafauna extinction is one of the more intriguing mysteries of the present day.

The Smilodon californicus was selected as the state fossil of California in 1973, beating out the trilobite species Fremontia fremonti for the honor. I understand the desire of many of the paleontologists to have a trilobite named the state fossil, but I must say I get a lot more oohs and ahs from elementary students when they see my Smilodon skull during their visits at the department. They are absolutely fascinated to find that the animal once lived, quite literally, in their backyards. So do I!"

So it's here now! All we need is a building to put it in...
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