Visitors to the California city of San Diego can enter a world of elephants, jaguars, camels and other modern animals whose distant cousins lived in North America. The San Diego Zoo's "Elephant Odyssey" is a new exhibit that shows the links between ancient and modern wildlife.

Zoo visitors get a close-up look at modern animals in their natural setting, complete with a 520,000 liter pool and waterfall.

A herd of seven elephants impresses visitors, but there are 30 species here, from lions to South American rodents called capybaras, which are found along river banks. They live here much as they would in the wild.

Rick Schwartz, called the ambassador for Elephant Odyssey, says the $45 million exhibit adds another dimension to the usual zoo displays, the element of time.

"You know, we are really well known for our bio-climatic zone. You go into an area and you are really immersed in their environment, other animals, birds, and the plant life too. Elephant Odyssey takes it one step further. We transverse through time, and we open up the dialogue of what used to live right here in Southern California 12,000 years ago," he said.

He says modern animals are seen alongside statues of their ancient relatives. "We used to have the Columbian mammoth, which is a direct relative of the Asian elephant; saber tooth cat, we have represented by the jaguar; American lion, which was much larger than any lion species we have today, is represented by our African lion. There were also ground sloths, the size of bears. We now have a three-toed sloth here representing that species. The list goes on and on," he said.

A replica tar pit filled with animal bones shows how scientists learn about the region's past. "These fossil digs are mock fossils of what has been found right here in San Diego and (the city of) Hemet, Los Angeles, and throughout Southern California and the Southwest," he said.

Architect Steve Fobes designed the three-hectare exhibit, which offers a side-by-side view of modern and ancient species from the last Ice Age in the late Pleistocene period. "In this area in particular, where we are standing, Mammoth Passage is an opportunity for the public to see the elephants close up and in close proximity to the statuary that we have made of the Columbia Mammoth that was here back in the Pleistocene, so they can compare the size of the two animals. You see the sculptures with the live animals right behind them," he said.

Visitors can get close to the animals, and see them interact with their keepers.

Zoo officials say this exhibit teaches the importance of conservation. Schwartz notes that an ancient bird, the California condor, has survived to the present day. It was at risk of extinction in the 1980s but was saved, in part by efforts of the San Diego Zoo. Living California condors are part of this exhibit. "We would like to talk about conservation - where are these species headed? Are they going to go the way of their ancestors, or are we doing something about it?," he said.

The zoo is collaborating with the organization Elephants Without Borders, based in Botswana, to preserve elephant habitats throughout Africa.