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Losing track of (geologic) time at the UC Museum of Paleontology

The trove of tens of thousands of specimens, ranging from shells to dinosaur fossils, holds answers to a long-ago past

a dinosaur skeleton next to a circular staircase
A freestanding mounted cast of Tyrannosaurus rex is the centerpiece of the atrium in the UC Berkeley Valley Life Sciences Building. Unearthed in 1990, the skeleton is 90% complete, making it one of the most comprehensive T. rex specimens ever discovered. (UC Berkeley photo by Yasin Id-Deen)
a large animal skull is fixed to a black wooden plank

The skull of a whale that lived some 15 million years ago is fixed to a wooden plank bolted to the wall in the UC Museum of Paleontology. (UC Berkeley photo by Yasin Id-Deen)

In one corner of the mazelike, climate-controlled room at the heart of UC Berkeley, a triceratops horn rests on a shelf a few inches above the floor. The massive skull of a baleen whale that lived some 15 million years ago is fixed to a wooden plank bolted to a nearby wall. There are drawers upon drawers stuffed with skeletons and labeled with locations that dot the globe.

Anyone who enters the Valley Life Sciences Building has likely seen the replica Tyrannosaurus rex on the ground floor, in the circular stairwell. It’s but one of dozens of pieces on display just outside the museum doors, like the skeleton of Stenopterygius, a Jurassic marine reptile.

But it’s farther inside the museum where tens of millions of years of history unfold among the movable shelves of the University of California Museum of Paleontology. Normally off-limits to all but select researchers, the space is home to hundreds of thousands of pieces that range from massive dinosaur bones to minuscule invertebrate fossils. The state’s designated museum for California fossils, it is home to massive aquatic predators discovered in Shasta County and scores of specimens plucked from the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles.

Juan Liu, an assistant museum curator and assistant adjunct professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, recently took several members of the UC Berkeley Office of Communications and Public Affairs on a tour through part of the collection. 

It’s difficult not to get turned around in the floor-to-ceiling cabinets. 

It’s easy — perhaps encouraged — to get lost in the vastness of geologic time.