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Tracing O.C.'s Wild Past


Eons ago, giant great white sharks the size of buses swam with walruses and whales in an ocean that covered a submerged Southern California. When the water receded, tiny camels, giant bears, elephants and saber-toothed cats roamed the land.

Then came man.

Many scientists believe the extinction of Pleistocene wildlife was directly related to over-hunting. Man's interaction with plants and wildlife--from early hunters to grizzly-bear-roping vaqueros and modern-day builders--is the subject of a new exhibit at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana.

"A Silent Testament," which opened Wednesday and runs through April 19, documents the precarious balance between the human and natural worlds through the use of artwork, artifacts, fossils, photos and graphic displays.

Paintings show parts of Orange County, such as Laguna Canyon and areas on the Irvine and O'Neill ranches, as they appeared nearly 100 years ago. Plein-air artist William Wendt glorified the California landscape in the early 1900s, and the exhibit includes his "San Juan Capistrano Hot Springs," which depicts the area along Ortega Highway before there was a highway.

The exhibit joins fine art and natural history to raise public awareness of environmental issues without sounding an anti-development theme. The Irvine Co., the county's largest landowner and real estate developer, is part of the sponsoring organization, Friends of the Nature Reserve of Orange County. Other members include the Orange County Natural History Assn., the Nature Conservancy and the Irvine Museum.

Despite Orange County's explosive growth, a good portion of the natural world remains, including many unique plant species.

Favorite parts of the exhibit for children and families are likely to be the life-size mural of a giant white shark, a saber-toothed cat skeleton, photographs of coyote families and a "false" walrus skeleton, said Steve Conkling of the Natural History Assn. (The false walrus was a diversion along the evolutionary path that led to modern walruses.)

There's also a mounted grizzly bear--the last one in the state was killed in Orange County in 1908, he noted--and a mountain lion. A display compares the saber-toothed cat with the mountain lion and the bobcat as examples of extinct, threatened and surviving species.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday through Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Admission is $6 for adults; $4 for senior citizens and students; $2 for children 5 through 12 and free for children younger than 5.

The museum is at 2002 N. Main St. Information: (714) 567-3600.

Internet users can take a virtual tour of the exhibit at the Web site,

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