Where to Look: A Necessary Headache

Hey there every peoples!

Long while since my last post. I have had to deal with another loss. Over a week ago my cousin was killed in a car accident. He had gotten out to help with someone else’s accident and ended up getting hit by another car. I wasn’t particularly close to him, but he will be missed so much; mainly because he was supportive of my paleontological interests. He always thought it was interesting. He also supported my habit of collecting animal bones , never thinking it odd or creepy, and even took me to the ranch he worked at a few times to gather livestock bones. Somewhere on that ranch this year he found a fossil whale vertebra. He invited me to look at the site where he found it some time and maybe even look for where it may have come from. But I got too distracted and never called him up. And now he’s gone. This one’s for you Warren.

My quest to found my own museum of paleontology (and hopefully archaeology as well) looks to be fraught with pitfalls and hardship. But what do you need most of all to start your own museum? That’s right: specimens! The majority of specimens in museums were collected by going out and looking for them (other times specimens were obtained by either buying them from other institutions or absorbing collections the original institution could no longer curate). You have to know where to look for fossils to better your odds of finding them. But even if you can find the locality, getting permission may be even harder. Nonetheless, this tedious task is essential if you ever want to get anything for display and research.

There are so many places I want to look. There are so many places that have just yanked me in and made me dream of one day plying their sediments for the remains of ancient life. So allow me to list the localities of utmost importance.

Main targets

Sespe formation- The Sespe formation is a late Eocene/early Oligocene deposit residing in Ventura County. This formation has yielded hundreds of fossils of animals from Eocene swamps and Oligocene woodlands. Being on the Central Coast, finding fossils here is of the highest priority.

An outcrop of the Sespe formation

Caliente formation: The Caliente formation runs through San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties. It is middle Miocene in age, ranging from 14 to 12 mya, I think. I haven’t been able to find out much about it. Again, being on the Central Coast, it has top priority.

Pismo formation- The rare instance where I actually do know where to prospect, but finding permission has proven difficult (lousy Harbor Authority won’t return my emails!). The Pismo formation is a series of sandstone bluffs running along San Luis Bay drive out in Avila Beach. The formation has yielded abundant remains of mid-Pliocene marine mammals. The last of highest priority targets on the Central Coast.

Secondary targets

John Day formation, Oregon- Ever since I first visited the John Day Fossil beds National Monument in north central Oregon, I fell in love with the place. Not just the beautiful rock formations, but also the variety and richness of the fossils that have been found there for over 100 years. I particularly love the John Day formation, for it provides a fauna similar to but somehow different than the ones we always see in museums (who come from South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming). Large museums such as Yale’s Peabody and Berkeley’s “Museum” of Paleontology have good size collections from the John Day beds but we never get to see them (Yale may have a few on display, but I’ve never been. Can anyone help me out?). I wish to search here so that these amazing fossils can get a little more exposure in the public eye.

Antlers formation, Oklahoma- One of the few dinosaur localities that I actually want to search. Everyone searches for dinosaurs in the Morrison formation and the Hell Creek formation. But I’m all about the lesser known stuff and few formations are lesser known than the Antlers formation. The Antlers formation is an early cretaceous bed in southern Oklahoma. It has produced a few dinosaurs, namely two of the three known skeletons of Acrocanthosaurus. It has also produced the remains of Deinonychus and Tenontosaurus and of course the monstrous vertebra of Sauroposeidon. As far as I can tell little work as been done in the Antlers formation. Perhaps I can change that someday, because who knows what the Antlers formation has to offer.

Barstow, California/Mascal formation, Oregon/Coal Valley and Truckee formations, Nevada/Valentine formation, Nebraska- The Miocene is very well known across the US. So what makes these special? Well for one, Alton Dooley said no good Barstovian collection exists outside the American Museum. He said he wanted to try and build such a collection. But given how busy he is with Carmel Church, the site in Wyoming, and other projects I wonder if he would even be able to get started. So maybe I can take up the task. Also, these are well known Miocene beds so hopefully there’s still some stuff to be found.


The Barstow syncline, featuring the many layers of the Barstow formation

Two Medicine and Judith River formations, Montana- Late cretaceous dinosaurs enjoying a high level of diversity. Everyone has Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and Edmontosaurus. I want to have their forbearers. Besides, like the Antlers formation, it’s a breath of fresh air in a museum world dominated by Morrison and Hell Creek dinosaurs.

Sharktooth Hill/ Santa Cruz area, California- I hope that one day my museum could have a hall devoted to fossil marine mammals. Sharktooth Hill and the area around Santa Cruz (where The Coastal Paleontologist finds his stuff) have both produced many remains so they sound like good places to search.

Third tier targets

Anza Borrego, California- Seems like the only place I can go and search for Pleistocene fossils.

Morrison formation, Utah/Wyoming- Yeah, I know I said dinosaurs from here are over done in museums. But one of my favorite prehistoric beasties is there (Allosaurus), and I’d also like to try and find more fossils of his contemporary predators.

Dinosaur National Monument, he most famous outcrop of the Morrison formation

Cedar Mountain formation, Utah- Like the Antlers formation, I want to search this one because of its early Cretaceous dinosaurs. Not sure how much I’d be able to do here, given how Utah’s own institutions are plying its rocks. But I’ll take what I can get.

Bridger Formation, Wyoming- For those wonderful Eocene critters. Do I need any other reason?

So that’s the jist of it. I don’t know how many of those I’ll be able to search in my lifetime. Or now, for that matter. I have even started thinking of trying to start a club or association here on the Central Coast to help things along. I figured more interested people pooling resources and energy would make some progress. Hell I have even thought of a three phase plan for collecting: spend some time collecting on the Central Coast and neighboring Kern County; After we’ve developed our skills doing that, move out to other parts of California; After that, branch out to other states, all the while still making small collecting trips here on the Central Coast. But seeing as I might be going out of state for college, not sure how that would go over (you know, the founder and probable leader suddenly leaving for a few years after just starting).

My own efforts haven’t gone so well. Alton was nice enough to direct me to where I could get information on where to look. One was Google Earth. Apparently the USGS has an overlay application for Google Earth. But it hasn’t worked so well for me thus far because California is such a large and diverse state that I don’t have time to try and pick through all the fluff. Of course there always old fashion geologic maps. My geology teacher informed me that the Diblee Foundation (who mapped half of California) sold geologic maps. So I got in touch with the Santa Barbara Museum and they took over the foundation when the founder passed away. So looked in the online catalogue and damn are those maps expensive! Seeing as I don’t have a job, I can’t afford any. Oi, will I ever get off the ground?

Till next time.

Fossil Localities: Red Rock Canyon

Hey there every peoples!

At the end of the spring semester this year my geology teacher recommended something to me. He said that the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County had a trip where you could go out to Red Rock Canyon State Park in the Mojave Desert and look for fossils. Seeing as I am ever so anxious to get out into the field and look for fossils, I jumped at the opportunity. I looked it up on the internet, marked my calendar for the day I could register, and waited patiently for that day. Once that was achieved it was another couple of months before I would actually get to go. But before I ramble on about this trip, I think a little background is in order.


Some of the beautiful rock formations of Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon lies in the Mojave Desert about 2 hours east of Bakersfield. Paleontologists in the early 20th century discovered that the bright colored crags and shrubby sands harbored a detailed record of a lost world. Named the Dove Spring Formation, the geologic unit spans the late Clarendonian to early Hemphillian (12 to 8 million years ago). During this time Red Rock canyon was further south than today, having been pulled north by the San Andreas Fault. Nearby volcanoes occasionally blanketed the area with ash, helping to preserve (and in the future date) this ancient environment. And what of the environment? Fossil plants, wood, and pollen have helped paint a picture that reveals the Mojave Desert was very different millions of years ago. The landscape was laced with rivers and ponds from which patches of woodland sprang. Vast swaths of grass grew between them. The climate was sub tropical, as revealed by the presence of certain plants like acacia and magnolia trees. The area was an elevated basin believed to be as much as 9,000 feet above sea level. Millions of years of erosion (which helped to create the park’s spectacular geology) wore it away to its current elevation.

The formation has yielded an abundance of fossils camels, five species thus far, ranging in size from a gazelle to a giraffe. Four species of pronghorns, smaller than today’s variety, have also been fairly prolific. A species of peccary and a late species of oreodont help round out the artiodactyl fauna. Horses are also common, with both functionally three-toed and functionally one toed varieties known. At least two species of rhinos and the ever present Gomphotherium represent the heavy weights of the assemblage amidst a profusion of micro critters. This abundant diversity of herbivores was stalked by a variety of carnivores. Perhaps the top predator in the area was the big bear dog Ischyrocyon (Nimravides might have been at the top, but determining if it was in the area is a work in progress). The nimravid Barbourofelis witfordi (once known as Barbourofelis osborni) shared this place with the cougar-size cat Pseudaelurus. Dogs were by far the most diverse carnivores, with small fox and coyote-like dogs living in the shadow of larger bone- crushing brutes like Borophagus and the giant Epicyon. Ten million years ago Red Rock Canyon was, for all intents and purposes, the African Savannah.

Sounds like a hell of a place doesn’t it? Even more so once you get out there. It has some spectacular geology, I’d say on par with Barstow or maybe even John Day. Combine that with the picturesque Mojave Desert and you’ve got one of California’s most awesome state parks. I had seen the place once before a few years ago but it was just a quick stop on the way back from Death Valley. To see more of it was one of the reasons I went on this trip. The main reason of course was to see what clues to its past we could tease out of the ground.

Like the trips I’ve taken with the San Bernardino County Museum several curators attended this trip. Chief among them (at least from my perspective) were retired curator Dave Whistler and current curator Xiaoming Wang. If you’re wondering why he sounds familiar, it’s because he was one of the guys who authored that kickass dog book a while back. Xiaoming was nice enough to give me a lift to the places where we prospected (and even nicer to put with my enthusiasm for the weekend). The guy Certainly knows his stuff. Dave Whistler was also a pleasure to talk to. As well as paleontology, the guy sure knows his way with desert plants (though it may just be these desert plants. Dr. Dave has been going out there a LONG time).


Dr. Xiaoming Wang

Dr. Dave Whistler

So what exactly did we find? Not as much as previous trips according to people who have done this before (one guy said he didn’t like the first site). I myself found what I always find when searching for fossils: bupkis. I found a few root casts, some petrified wood, and lots of little bone shards (who didn’t find those?). Other people had better luck. At the end of the trip our tally was: a distal camel femur, a distal camel humerus, part of a camel vertebrae, a Pliohippus tooth (I think. It was a horse tooth, I know that much), a camel ankle bone, a distal horse metapodial, fragments from a juvenile gomphothere tooth, and a little bit I called “Mr. Contentious” since they couldn’t agree on what it was (Dave thought it was part of the enamel band found on gomphothere tusks. Xiaoming and Gary thought it was a piece of rhino incisor). Before we had set out I foolishly proclaimed that my goal was to find one of those gnarly rhino teeth.


Distal end of a camel femur

A UC Riverside student named Bridgette (who was my buddie for the weekend) found this pelvis thought to be from an ancient rabbit

Yeah, i put my crappy finds on the Table of Discoveries. I have depression! My self-confidence is practically non existent! I needed to feel like i accomplished something!

So even if I didn’t find anything it was a very interesting and worthwhile trip. Learning about the paleontology and ecology of Red Rock Canyon was very interesting and I had a great time talking with the curators (current or otherwise). I will certainly go back next year (if anything to find that rhino tooth!). And maybe in the distant future I can do my own prospecting out there. Because this place is awesome. I wish to help tell its story anyway I can. Thank you LA Museum for providing me an opportunity to search for fossils, thank you volunteers for covering all the logistics, and thank you Dave and Xiaoming for putting up with me!

Till next time.