Who’s the Oldest in the Zoo?
by | December 8th, 2010

Quick – how many dinosaurs can you name?

I bet you came up with at least three: Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops.  Maybe you are better at this than me, so you got Pterodactyl and Velociraptor too.  Good job!

Now quick – how many other prehistoric animals can you name?

In my experience, most people can come up with just one, the Woolly Mammoth.  But the truth is that many creatures inhabited the Earth along with the dinosaurs and were related to animals we know today.  Three fossil replicas live in the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo, right alongside their modern descendants.

Protostega gigas lives next to the underwater alligator windows.  It is pretty easy to recognize it as a turtle.  In fact, Protostega was a sea turtle that lived 97-66 million years ago.  Its preserved remains are found from South Dakota to Texas, from Colorado to Kansas, since 97 million years ago the Great Plains of today were underwater!  This turtles wide, flat ribs were probably connected by a leathery covering, similar to the shell of modern Leatherback Sea Turtles.

Now this fossil is pretty easy to recognize as a turtle, but some prehistoric animals are much harder to identify.

Check out Eroyps and imagine a salamander that was 5-6 feet long!  This was no gentle giant, Eroyps was a fierce predator that hunted both in water and on land, similar to crocodiles today.  It lived roughly 280 million years ago, which pre-dates the dinosaurs.

Our last Children’s Zoo resident fossil is much younger, a mere 144-65 million years old.  This coincides with the peak of dinosaur populations, which makes sense because Sarcosuchus imperator* ate dinosaurs!  This ancient crocodilian grew up to 40 feet long and weighed about 17,500 pounds.  Notice how the eyes and nostrils are on top of the skull, which is very similar to modern alligators.  Scientists think Sarcosuchus was a “sit and wait” predator like our American alligators.  They would float motionless in the water, able to breathe and watch the shore because their nostrils and eyes are on top of their head.  When an unsuspecting dinosaur (or deer today) came to the water’s edge to drink – BAM!  Sarcosuchus would launch itself forward with tremendous speed and power and grab it’s prey.

So we have three fossil replicas in the Children’s Zoo, none of which are dinosaurs, but all of which are related to animals alive today in our exhibits.  To find turtles like Protostega gigas, head to the RAD Room pond exhibit and look for our spotted turtles or three-toed box turtles.  While you are there, check out all the different frogs; they are amphibians like Eroyps.  And don’t miss the American alligators, a modern day (and much smaller) Sarcosuchus!

*Sarcosuchus imperator holds a special place in my heart because that’s the nickname I use during our ZooCamp program.  It’s not unusual for children in the grocery store to call out “Hi Sarco!” when I walk by!

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