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.


2 thoughts on “Fossil Localities: Red Rock Canyon

  1. Pingback: Bryan Adams mit herausragendem neuem Livematerial auf “Bare Bones” « Die Tom Kolbe Show

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