Are There Dinosaur Bones in UC Berkeley's Campanile?

9 min
Fossils from prehistoric California can be found inside UC Berkeley's Campanile, including the mammoth, dire wolf, giant bison and camel. (Elena Lacey/KQED)

A

t over 300 feet tall, the bell tower at UC Berkeley is hard to miss. On a clear day, it's even visible from across San Francisco Bay.

Kate Groschner, a Cal materials science doctoral candidate, asked Bay Curious to look into a rumor she's heard about the tower: that it's a massive storehouse for dinosaur bones.

“It’s always dinosaur bones,” says Pat Holroyd, feigning exasperation. She handles Vertebrate Collections for the UC Museum of Paleontology. Leslea Hlusko, a professor in the department of integrative biology, interjects: “But it’s actually better ... dire wolves!”

In case "Game of Thrones" led you to believe otherwise, dire wolves were real. An upsized relative of modern gray wolves, they roamed the Americas, including California, before going extinct around 10,000 years ago — which makes them old, but nowhere close to the age of dinosaurs.

What’s known as Sather Tower — or the Campanile, an Italian word for bell tower — boasts several floors packed with not just dire wolf skulls but also tiny shells, bird bones, pieces of whales and prehistoric buffalo. There's even part of an ancient, toothy swimming reptile called hydrotherosaurus. (Sorry, fossil fans: While the observation deck at the top of the Campanile is open to the public, the floors housing old bones are not.)

From mammoth bones to prehistoric skulls, fossils and casts sit on open wooden shelves, or are packed away in boxes. The whole space has a Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe. (Daniel Potter/KQED)

So how did so many old bones end up in the university's bell tower?

“The fossils that are here in the Campanile are primarily from the La Brea Tar Pits [in Los Angeles],” Holroyd explains. At that site, underground tar bubbled to the surface over thousands of years, sometimes trapping and preserving wildlife. (If you’ve ever visited the museum in Los Angeles full of mammoths and saber-toothed cats, you’re familiar with this.)

In the early 1900s, not long before the Campanile was built, Berkeley paleontologists like John C. Merriam excavated the tar pits, and began hauling back curious bones from the likes of extinct horses and ground sloths. Researchers needed to store them somewhere. But around this time, Holroyd says, the paleontology department was moved to a smaller building.

“They said, 'What are we going to do with all our fossils? We need to have them here; they’re active study. Could we use that empty space inside the Campanile to store the fossils?' ” says Holroyd.

Professor Leslea Hlusko cradles the skull of a dire wolf—an extinct predator that once roamed California. (Daniel Potter/KQED)

It turned out to be an ideal arrangement.

“There’s not a lot else that could be housed there without significant renovations to the Campanile itself,” she says.

Indeed — the middle floors of the bell tower feel like an old garage, with low industrial lighting, concrete floors, exposed girders and the distinct smell of old bones that were once covered in tar, and later cleaned using kerosene.

Sponsored

“It’s kind of a spooky space,” Hlusko says. “You wouldn’t want your office in there. But fossils don’t care.”

Groschner, this week’s question asker, didn’t complain either. “Is that a femur?” she asked at one point, amazed. “It’s the size of my body.” (Holroyd believes the giant bone belonged to a Columbian mammoth — a distinct variety separate from woolly mammoths — but said she’d need to take measurements to be certain it wasn’t a mastodon.)

The dearth of the dinosaurs

The bell tower doesn’t have much in the way of dinosaur bones, Holroyd says, because “dinosaurs weren’t being found and excavated at the time that we first started putting fossils into the Campanile.”

In fact, the state’s first dinosaur wasn’t discovered until some two decades later, in the 1930s.

Dr. Pat Holroyd shows off a fossil camel skull to Bay Curious question asker Kate Groschner. California was home to camels starting around 40 million years ago; some were even pet-sized. (Daniel Potter/KQED)

It’s also worth noting that dinosaur fossils are rare in California because much of the state was underwater when they walked the Earth. (For more on this, check out our Bay Curious episode on the area’s dino-era denizens.)

Still, Groschner was not disappointed. “Dinosaurs are great, but all mammals are cool, too,” she said. She gave dire wolves a shoutout, but there was another unexpected find in the Campanile that also impressed her: the skull of a prehistoric camel.

Yes, California had camels.

While llama-like camels have turned up in the La Brea Tar Pits, their lineage goes back some 40 million years, Holroyd explains, to a tiny ur-camel whose fossils have been found in Southern California.

“The skull of one of the first camels would be about the size of your hand, so it was a tiny animal, but with very, very long legs. It would maybe come halfway up your leg, so maybe its head would be near your hip — but just a very delicate, tiny animal.”

It was enough to prompt Groschner to daydream aloud about a pet tiny camel. Squee.

Sponsored

Volume
KQED Live
Live Stream
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
Live Stream information currently unavailable.
Share
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
KQED Live

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.