Evolution at the Zoo: Prehistoric Park Edition

A few months ago I wrote a bit about how zoos incorporate evolution into their exhibits, including examples where extinct species are featured through dioramas or life-size replicas. The San Diego Zoo does a great job of highlighting recently extinct mammals in its Elephant Odyssey exhibit, and today I wanted to share one more example along similar lines – the Prehistoric Park at the Calgary Zoo.

Dinosaurs featured prominently at the Calgary Zoo beginning in the 1930s, as the St Georges Island Natural History Park, featuring unique concrete dinosaur sculptures. Tragically, none of the original models survive today besides Dinny the sauropod, to my knowledge at least. In the early 1980s, the old models were removed and a whole new landscaped area was constructed to house the new Prehistoric Park, which, besides new interpretive signage and the occasional addition of animatronic dinosaurs, is largely what visitors see today.

Many of the models are replicas from the Sinclair World of Dinosaurs exhibit from the 1964 World’s Fair, and are thus A-OK in my book despite being a product of their time and not particularly accurate today. Tyrannosaurus stands guard at the top of an imposing volcanic hill.

And good ol’ Ankylosaurus is here too, painted in a rather fetching light-on-dark colour scheme that works really well to bring out the osteoderms. Stay tuned for more from me and Jordan Mallon on Ankylosaurus in a few weeks!

Other dinosaur models have fared less well over time – the binocular vision on this Edmontosaurus (nee Trachodon) gives this hadrosaur a rather alien appearance when viewed head-on.

Dinosaurs from Alberta are also featured in the park, like this Centrosaurus. Dinosaurs in an Alberta zoo make sense because of Alberta’s rich fossil history and overall strong interest in dinosaurs, but another area where the zoo could improve its interpretive materials is by more clearly highlighting which dinosaurs roamed this area during the Cretaceous, and which are imports from elsewhere.


The dinosaurs in Prehistoric Park aren’t arranged chronographically as in many museums, but are instead presented in different habitats and ‘geographic’ regions, like swamps, deserts, and volcanic mountains. This makes sense in the context of a zoo, and particularly the Calgary Zoo which groups animals by biome and geographic region, but works a bit less well here, in my opinion. I didn’t realize that’s what this area was going for until I sat down to write this blog post, and dinosaurs among columnar basalts threw me for a bit of a loop. Perhaps with more signage this sort of arrangement could work really well, highlighting how animals of the past occupied different environments, just like animals of today.

These interpretive signs all stem from a 2010s-era refurbishment of the Prehistoric Park and are probably the most effective vehicle for linking evolution, dinosaurs, and other animals on display at the zoo. I’m partial to this sign showing off different weapons and armour, and I like that there are touchable objects here.

I also had to share the really cool graphic design of these wall carvings at the entrance to the zoo – one wall features prehistoric life, and the other wall features extant animals at the zoo. I like this Saurolophus a lot.

Prehistoric Park is showing its age content-wise despite some refreshed interpretive materials, and the collection of dinosaurs makes it a bit hard to tell a compelling evolutionary or ecological narrative in this setting.  It’s not quite as effective as Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo, but it’s also a product of its time and also trying to accomplish a different goal. Overall, it’s a cool feature of the Calgary Zoo that’s clearly still really popular with visitors (it was busy during my visit a few weeks ago!), and I wish more zoos incorporated extinct animals and the concept of changing ecosystems into their living exhibits.

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