Searching Paleontological Hotspots

Hey there every peoples.

My last post seemed like a total non starter. I knew it would be insignificant, but damn, did it seem to go unnoticed, even by this blog’s standards. But still, whether I had a billion dollars or just a few thousand, where would my museum go? I have talked about all kinds of places on “The Hit List”. These are extremely numerous and probably unfeasible to try and tackle in my lifetime (of course assuming I even make it far enough to start building a collection). So I have decided to place priority on some select localities I have dubbed “Paleontology Hot Spots”. These are places that boast a long and continuous fossil history. Instead of just a few million years of most geologic formations, these “hotspots” have multiple sequences of formations that really detail the changes in life and environment through time. I have selected 4 that I’d like my museum to focus on should it ever take off.

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The Book Route?

Hey there every peoples!

I keep going on and on about this museum project of mine, but what exactly is the purpose of it all? Well the reason i use the most is to create a home for Central Coast fossils. But the Central Coast is really a spearhead for an even greater mission: to give a platform to the fossils who don’t seem to get much exposure

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Frustration and Disappointment in Kern County

Hey there every peoples!

In paleontology you have to be able to deal with disappointments. You may not always find exciting or important fossils every time. You may encounter accidents or mishaps during excavation, transport, and/or preparation. Or your grant proposal may have been rejected. I got a taste of such disappointment this weekend but not without a good amount of frustration along with it.

Now in my quest to open my own museum i have begun collecting fossils. I already have a nice little collection of invertebrates (with a few vertebrate fossils). To aid me i bought a book about a month and a half ago. The book is Gem Trails of Southern California by James Mitchell. I had hoped that maybe there were a few places to look for fossils in the book. And indeed there were, quite a few even. But not all is right in this rock hound’s guide. I have never written a review on Amazon but i feel compelled to make this book my first. And here is why.

Saturday i went out to Hart Park in Bakersfield over in Kern County to look for fossils at one of the book’s sites. The site is called Ant Hill (at least by the book). It starts off by talking about Sharktooth Hill and how collecting there is no longer possible there.

A very similar but lesser known site is situated a few miles farther south near beautiful Hart Park

The book gave directions how to get there. I had a little trouble as i couldn’t find the road to get off on. The book was written in 2003, so the directions may have just been out of date. And indeed they were. I guess the road i was supposed to take had been converted into a bike path. But this wasn’t a problem. It just meant i had to make a short hike to the site instead of driving there. The site was easy to find, considering it has an old rusted bunker sticking out of the hillside. The book said that shark teeth and even bones could be found at the site. Naturally, this got me excited.

Ant Hill, with prominant mettle bunker at it's base

Now that i had found the site, it was time to start looking for fossils. I was ready to go: I had my rock hammer, some hand tools, my dig knife, a paint brush, and bags. But i didn’t find anything. I spent an hour and a half combing the hillside, eyes to the ground, only to turn up nothing but rocks. No fossils in sight, not one scrap of bone. Why? Could it be that i didn’t find any because I’m just an amateur? Possibly, but i think the book is to blame here.

This book has been helpful in listing many site to search, but in my eyes it has a huge flaw: it doesn’t elaborate on anything! It gives decent enough directions to the sites themselves, but beyond it’s pretty vague. Case in point: Ant Hill. Here is how it told me where to dig:

The prime collecting is easy to see, being situated on the hill side, above the bunker. There is a continous linear series of excavations along the somewhat thin, fossil-bearing strata made by previous collectors, which marks where you should start.

Ok, where are the excavations? Are they those terraces with the trails on them?

See the terraces? If those are excavations, those were big excavations. Like, beyond the scale of the average hobby collector.

Or are they those ditches running down the hill side?

I dunno, these look like standard erosion channels to me

this is especially hard for me given my learning disability because i’m not so strong with visuals. The book doesn’t go into any detail about the nature of these excavations. Nor does it go into any detail about the fossil layer. Where exactly on the hill is it? In the middle? Just above the bunker? Is it on the left or the right side? What is the nature of the fossil layer? Is it a silt stone, a sandstone, or a mudstone? It is gray or light brown? The book doesn’t explain! It just says “the hillside above the bunker”. Well i searched the hillside above the bunker and i found nothing. Not only did i not find any fossils, i couldn’t even find what could be a suitable fossil bearing deposit. All i found in the outcrops (as well as the hill at large) was unconsolidated sand filled with rocks. I had learned from books, websites, and museums that conglomerates are not good places to find fossils because the rocks would have broken up the remains.

See, just a bunch of rocks

I mean seriously, just look at them all!

Bakersfield is a 2 hour drive for me, so it was a long way to go for a bust*. I found nothing no thanks to this books lack of details. This lies in stark contrast to a couple other sites i visited from the book (i’ll discuss them in detail in future posts). One was Jalama Beach in Santa Barbara County. The book mentioned that in addition to rocks, fossils of fish, plants, and even “petrified whale bones” were found there. Well the shale was the right strata (the Monterey formation) but the shale was so crumbly and weak that i doubt any fossils could be inside. It said the cliffs just east of the beach was where to look. I found the cliffs, and a seaweed fossil, but the book could have easily said “he cliffs just east of the beach along Jalama Beach Road”. And the whale bones? Not one word on where people found them. It just said “and even petrified whale bones” at the end of it’s list of stuff to find at the beach. Were these bones found on the north end or the south end of the beach? Do the bones stick out of the cliffs or are they encased in concretions? Explain book. Explain!

And then there is Rincon Hill, a site in southern Santa Barbara county. I found the site easily (it’s right on an off ramp). Now there were loads of snail and cockle shells on the surface. They littered the hillside pretty much. Also littering the hillside were fragments of larger clam shells. The book had this to say:

Much of what can be gathered there is just chips and pieces, but there are complete specimens, if you are willing to spend a little time doing some LIGHT digging.

So where do i conduct this “light digging”? Bottom of the hill? The top of the hill? Is there a special layer i need to find? And what exactly constitutes light digging? Grrrrrr:

Bottom line is, this book needs a major rewrite! I mean, the directions to the sites are decent enough and the book has given me some new places to look. But for the love of Great Atheismo, it doesn’t elaborate on some very important details. Each site gets 2 pages, one with directions and the other with the map. One page just isn’t enough. If the book wants to cater to the casual and amateur rock hound, it needs to elaborate on specific details that don’t take a minor geology degree to spot. It’s a handy little guide but because of it’s vague descriptions, i made a day trip for nothing.

*(CALM, short for the California Living Museum, was just across the road. So after wasting an hour and a half at Ant Hill, i grabbed some lunch and just unwound there. CALM is pretty much a zoo, but one that specializes in species native to California. They have a relatively new (around a year old) cat exhibit featuring some gorgeous cougars and bobcats. They also have a reptile house, a raptor exhibit, a desert exhibit, and just lots of other animals including mule deer, coyotes, black bears, several species of fox, and more. Plus they have a small education center with small exhibits discussing California’s rich fossil history. The fossils come from Sharktooth Hill, Red Rock Canyon, and the McKittrick tar pits, all on loan from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. I think it’s a great set up. The fossils are few in number, but you can see animals from California’s prehistoric past and then go outside and see the animals living in California today. Lucky for them that they are in California since the state is so diverse biologically and geologically. If they expand in the future, there are still loads of animals to choose from: tule elk, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, shore birds, seals, sea lions, sea otters, and marine and freshwater fish. They could expand even further if they go for animals that once lived in California: grizzly bears, wolves, bison all used to live in California in historic times. The San Diego Zoo has en exhibit called “Elephant Odyssey” which kind of recreates California in the late Pleistocene using modern animals (some are proxies for extinct species while others were merely extirpated): elephants, lions, jaguars, guanacos, tapirs, capybaras, secretary birds, pronghorns, condors, and other small animals. It really is a unique exhibit that i hope i get to see someday. Not sure if CALM would be able to do something like that, but it might be worth a shot. But to get back on track, the California Living Museum is unique among zoos and is certainly worth dropping by if you’re ever in the area or passing through. )

Till next time!

Sharktooth Hill Fund

Hey there every peoples!

Via The Coastal Paleontologist (a blog you should be reading instead as it is written by someone who is actually active in paleontology, and not by some pathetic wannabe like me), i got a hold of a link to a fund raiser by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County: http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/11-05-11/ . It’s to raise money in order to buy the Sharktooth Hill Bonebed for posterity. Seeing as i hope to look for fossils there someday, i fully support the effort. But since i have no money to speak of, this is really the best i can do. I wish i could do more, but i am an unemployed community college student…

Till next time

Narrowing the Focus

Hey there every peoples!

You may or may not remember my post about all the places I’d love to look for fossils. Unfortunately, that would be too difficult. Even if i got enough people together to start going into the field, we can’t be everywhere at once. Andy advised that i instead focus on just a few places. Plus you are never guaranteed to find something, so focusing efforts on just a few places increases your odds. So i have begun formulating a plan on how our field activity may pan out once we can get started. It’s not pretty and will need some tweaking, but it’s a start.

Phase 1: Central Coast

The first step would be to search for and recover fossils on the Central Coast (as doing such is the founding ideal of the museum). It would also be more feasible for a fledgling museum, as we’d only have to drive a few hours south, as opposed to traveling off to another state. Plus the fossils wouldn’t be too big; you don’t want to just dive into a dinosaur and be left hanging because you don’t know how to work with large fossils (following Alton’s advice of starting small).

Sespe formation- A late Eocene through mid Oligocene rock unit residing in the Los Posas hills of Ventura County. As i noted in an earlier post, i can’t help but feel as if the Sespe is tapped out. I know it’s a silly feeling but that’s what depression can do you you. Even if there are still fossils to be found, i fear there may not be too many places left to look, either being on private land or, knowing southern California, have been built over.

(Alternative: if no luck is to be had in the Sespe, than the John Day formation of Oregon would be a good substitute. The fauna there is quite similar to the animals of the Oligocene member of the Sespe (the few i have seen referenced so far). It would also serve my goal of telling the stories of under represented fossils. Of course it would be more difficult to start prospecting in Oregon than in California)

Caliente formation- This unit stretches through San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties but most specimens i have found in the literature seem to come from Ventura. Nonetheless, the Caliente formation preserves mammals ranging from the late Hemingfordian to the late Clerendonian. Again i can’t help but feel like it has been picked over. You would think this unease would be put to rest by a paper in 1993 describing  a mess of new camel species from the Caliente, but it doesn’t since the paper does not state when the fossils were found. Near as i can tell, the most major work done in the Caliente was in the mid 1960s when a guy from Berkeley found something like 4500 specimens.

(Alternative: If no luck is to be had in the Caliente, the Mascal formation of Oregon is a good back up. Like the Sespe/John Day, the animals of the Mascal are similar in age and composition to the faunas of the Caliente. It would also serve my goal of telling the stories of under represented fossils. Of course it would be more difficult to start prospecting in Oregon than in California)

Monterey formation- An expanse of shale and diatomacious earth stretching through San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Fossils of fish and algae abound but fossils of whales, dolphins, sharks, and birds are also known.

Pismo formation- Of all the local fossil layers to fret over, this is probably the most legitimate. The main exposure of the Pismo formation lies along Port San Luis Road out in Avila Beach. Based on what i can see driving to the wharf, there’s not a lot of area to search, so it could be very easy to exhaust (that is if it haven’t haven’t already). Lawrence Barnes once said that the Pismo formation was a bonebed on par with such sites such as Sharktooth Hill, Dinosaur National Monument, and the La Brea Tar Pits. Not sure about that, but he is an expert on fossil marine mammals, so there’s a good chance he’s right.

(Alternative- If Avila is a bust, then maybe we could go search the Purisima formation up near Santa Cruz. Some fossils i have seen are from the same time as the Pismo formation, and a couple animals are very similar. It’s a possibility, but i don’t know if Bobby would like other folks moving in on his turf)

Phase 2- Once we have spent a few years sharpening our claws here on the Central Coast, i was thinking we could start branching out to other parts of California, particularly in neighboring counties. We would still make smaller excursions to Central Coast localities; hell they may still make up a significant amount of our field activity, depending upon our success in going further afield.

Sharktooth Hill- A rich marine bonebed outside of Bakersfield. I hope to one day have a large scale exhibit of marine mammals. Also i feel like i need to make up for the Buena Vista Museum debacle. A lot of important specimens were lost. Andy informs me that most of the bonebed is on private land and that access could be difficult to obtain, “But, surely someone must be able to!”

Red Rock Canyon- Red Rock Canyon lies in the Mojave Desert of eastern Kern County. It is home to the Ricardo formation, a well known Clarendonian to Hemphilian layer. May be difficult to get permits, since only established institutions can apparently get access. Plus the LA Museum does work out there so we’d be in competition.

Panoche Hills- Some of the only Mesozoic rocks in California to bear fossil vertebrates. The Panoche Hills harbor the Moreno formation which dates to about 75 million years ago. Mosasaurs, long-necked plesiosaurs, and turtles have all been found here. Why search the Moreno formation? Well i can’t see it as too much of a stretch that these animals also lived on the Central Coast (a couple plesiosaur fossils are known from SLO County, but they are Jurassic in age). Also, most musuems have marine reptile fossils from Kansas. These are from right here in California. Once again we have the picked over mentality going on with me. Lastly he LA Museum will be displaying some of these marine reptiles in their new dinosaur hall.

Phase 3- After a while [or sooner, depending on how well funded and equipped (both mentally and physically) we are] we will go deep into the American West to search for dinosaurs. I know i want to create another venue for fossil mammals, but that doesn’t mean i should rob people of dinosaurs. Today there are really only four good size to large scale dinosaur exhibits on the west coast: San Diego Museum of Natural History, San Diego, CA; Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology, Claremont, CA; Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA; and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Seattle, Washington. We could use some more dinosaurs over. And keeping in step with my philosophy, my dinosaurs will be off the beaten path (so to speak).

Morrison formation- I know, i know. *channels Douchey McNitpick* “But Doug, every museum has Jurassic dinosaurs, you paleo-plagiarist!” But remember, fossil recovery is part of my museum’s mission. A few years ago i read in an article that a Utah state geologist said there were around 25 Jurassic sites that needed to be excavated. I don’t know if that is still the case, but if so, that could give us a ready supply of Jurassic fossils. Plus my favorite dinosaur, Allosaurus, is from the Morrison formation.

Two Medicine formation- The Hell Creek formation sits alongside the Morrison formation the dinosaur beds that most people focus on. I want to look in the Two Medicine formation of Montana for the dinosaurs that came before. Plus some cool horned dinosaurs are known from the Two Medicine formation, namely Einiosaurus (with it’s huge can opener of a horn) and Achelousaurus (who has no facial horns at all, but roughened patches of bone). Plus the Two Medicine formation plays into a concept that dictates where my final choice for dinosaurs is.

Kirtland formation- Lastly but not least, i want to look for dinosaurs in the Kirtland formation of northeastern New Mexico. Oddly, the picked over mentality doesn’t factor in here in regards to the fossils found. I suspect that it’s just a matter of not enough work being done in the Kirtland formation. More importantly though, i want to search the Kirtland because i have been interested in the idea of dinosaur provincialism. Some of the dinosaurs in the Kirtland have cloudy identities, which i hope to rectify. The Kirtland collection could be combined with the Two Medicine collection to create a side by side comparison of dinosaurs from the north with the dinosaurs of the south. Who knows what could be deciphered.

Some possibilities- These are a couple places that i would love to search, but are likely never to happen. I can dream, but if i get my museum going, i don’t think these will be searched in my lifetime…

Goler formation- the Goler formation is a smattering of Paleocene outcrops in Kern County. It represents the only Paleocene fauna on the West Coast. The Ray Alf Museum has been doing work in the Goler for the last several years and will have a display about it in their renovated Hall of Life. Andy informed me that the outcrops are few and that specimens have proven sparse. Maybe some day in the future, when no one has worked it save for mother nature, maybe we can go out and find some stuff. But in the mean time, Andy said we could trade them casts of Sespe material for casts of Goler material (assuming we find anything in the Sespe).

El Gallo formation- Like i said above, i have become interested in dinosaur provincialism. So far all the fossils pertaining to such come from the east side of what was once the “lost continent” of Laramidia. This is due mainly to the lack of dinosaur bearing strata on the west coast (probably because of all the Cenozoic era volcanism and geologic instability). However one fauna is somewhat known: dinosaurs of the El Gallo formation in Baja California. I talked about them a while back and their place in the scheme of dinosaur provincialism is intriguing. I once mentioned them on Scott Sampson’s blog, and he said “Time to make some more discoveries!”. I would love to make them (they would go great with the provincialism collection i hope to establish) but i don’t know if we could. The book “Dinosaurs and other Mesozoic Reptiles of California” notes that the terrain is very difficult to extract large fossils from. The book also made note of some political tension, in the form of the LA Museum having to return many of the fossils they collected to Mexico. I don’t know if they would let some gringos go poking around for dinosaurs. Again, i’d love to do it but i just can’t tell right now.

(I guess not all was returned, as the LA Museum will have some of these fossils on display in their new dinosaur hall)

So there you have it. It may sound like a lot, but it is a watered down version of my initial list. Further more, depending where we are able to get permits and how much money we can raise, this list will likely get really short if my plans come to fruition. I try to think positively, but such a venture as starting a museum weighs terribly on my mind and little by little the doubts creep in. People are always wishing me luck and i appreciate the sentiment but it’s obvious that it’ll take more than luck to pull this off. Even if i can throw together a pitch to the public and even if i can get some people together to start getting things going, i’l may very well be moving away in a year! I desperately cling to what little faith i have in people, but that faith is rarely rewarded. I need the help of others to make it work, to ply these wonderful stretches of the earth’s surface. Maybe someday i’ll get it…

Till next time!

S.O.S.: Save the Buena Vista Museum!

Hey there every peoples!

I figured that for once I won’t be the only depressed person! That’s right I’m taking you all down with me! Bwahahahahahaha!

But seriously, this is depressing news. I just visited the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History in Bakersfield and learned a most awful truth. They’re in danger of losing their enviable collection of marine fossils from Sharktooth Hill! What’s happening is that the fossils have been on display for the last 15 years due to a loan from a private collector (Bob Ernst, who wanted to create a place to display local fossils). Well as noted in my “Sources of Inspiration” post, Bob tragically passed away a few years ago. I guess whoever gained control over his estate has decided to auction off the fossils. If the museum can’t come up with the dough by December 1, their priceless collection of marine fossils will be lost forever. Just look at what’s at stake:

Nearly complete skeleton of Allodesmus, an ancient sea lion

I wanted to weep when i saw this...

A skeleton of a juvenile baleen whale

Seriously, what is anyone going to do with a fossil whale skeleton?

The soccer ball-sized skull of a leatherback turtle

And it's gone. How many of those are known? Jesus christ...

A large case that once housed the the skulls, jaws, and other bones of the ancient dolphin Prosqualidon...

... is now emptier than a tea party canidate's rhetoric...

And those aren’t the only things. They have loads more that is being packed up and shipped to auction storage as we speak (including preciously rare fossils of the giant sea bird Osteodontornis). This is a tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude. Bob spent the later part of his life hunting for fossils to fill a museum that would teach people about Kern County’s rich fossil heritage. And now his dream will be shattered. I admit that the fossils are the property of whoever now possesses them and they are free to do as they wish with their newfound fossils. But that can’t mean I can’t condemn them for their actions! Shame on you for destroying a valued local resource you materialistic weasel! You could very easily have just donated the specimens to the museum. But I guess you heard how much fossils can fetch and decided that getting a fat sum of money is more important than fulfilling a good man’s wish.

But you can help! The museum is trying to raise as much money as possible to save what they can. Any amount will help because it all adds up! Their goal is $150,000. Please do what you can. This collection is the result of one man’s passion and has taught thousands of people about one of the best known fossil sites in the world. And as the pictures show, many rare and important specimens are at risk of being lost to not only science but also the public and most importantly the people of Kern County themselves! Please help the Buena Vista Museum save their crown jewels! (click on the pictures to go to my flickr album and see all the other fossils being thrown on the auction block!)

Help! Save me!

Till next time!

Addendum: new efforts to save the fossils here: http://accpaleo.wordpress.com/2011/09/14/sharktooth-hill-fund/