Say hello to Saurolophus, our home-grown California dinosaur! It is the last of the new teaching materials that we were able to purchase as part of renewing the teaching of science at Modesto Junior College. We ordered it months ago, but I guess there was a backlog of skull orders or something. It was like Christmas opening the box this morning.
Being last isn't what made it special. We have half a million people in our county, and I'm willing to bet that 99% of them don't know what it is or why it's important to them. Only one person got to be the first to find a dinosaur bone in California, and that was 17-year-old Al Bennison in 1937. He was exploring Del Puerto Canyon in the Coast Ranges along the western part of Stanislaus County looking for shell fossils when he found bones scattered on a slope. He showed them to his science teacher who reported them to the paleontologists at U.C. Berkeley. It was the first dinosaur ever found in our state. Bennison went on to a career in geology, and a few decades later discovered the most complete mosasaur skull ever found in California (see below). The mosasaur species even bears his name.
The creatures were gigantic, on the order of thirty feet long, weighing several tons. They were plant-eaters, with teeth well-adapted to grinding twigs and leaves. Whether they swam or not has been a topic of discussion and debate. Some argue that they had few other defenses from predators, so that swimming was necessary to escape from being eaten. Others suggest that they lived in herds that provided protection.
Dinosaurs certainly capture the imagination of our children (and not a few of our adults), and it is a good thing for our students to know that our county played an important part in the paleontological discoveries in our state. When students realize that one of their own (however long ago) made an important find, they also can visualize themselves as a paleontologist or geologist making important contributions to science.
For the best source of information on dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles of California, check out this book by Richard Hilton of Sierra College. It's the best resource out there for our state.