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 The book was written in 2003, so the directions may have just been out of date.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!

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A Proper Response

Hey there every peoples!
I know I said I was quitting The Grand Vision for good, but I was weak. My depression got the better of me, but thanks to the support of my parents, my therapist, Meredith Riven, Traumador (everyone’s favorite stuffed theropod), and even Mrs. Olson herself, I have come back into the fold.

You may remember my little piece about the fossil whale brains found here in SLO County. Well it seems it got a response from Peaches Olson (the woman whose daughter was in the accident and sister of the woman who found the fossil). I have now come up with a proper response.

Although, I understand your wish for these rare finds to reside in their “home land” and in a museum of their own……….you have two problems. We do not have anyone qualified to study the calliber of these fossils and WHO is going to FUND this kind of Museum?

First off, this woman is not a paleontologist, so I shouldn’t expect her to understand how the science works. Paleontologists do a lot of traveling. No matter how big a museum’s collection is they don’t have everything. Paleontologists often have to travel to multiple museums for the specimens they use in their research. So obviously scientists could come to our museum to study the brains. In fact I think the Central Coast is an optimal place for a museum. Berkeley and Los Angeles, two world renowned museums, are each 4 hours away. That’s well within arm’s reach compared to some other museums they’d have to go to. What is more, because we would be between these two hubs, it would be easier for paleontologists to visit our collections in one fell swoop (start at Berkeley and go south and vice versa). Even if we wouldn’t have someone qualified, they could easily come to us.
And I’d find a way to fund it. It may not be easy, but I’d find a way. I’ll have a bake sale, I’ll get two jobs, I’ll get a loan, I’ll apply for grants, I’ll set up a donation stall at Farmer’s Market, I’ll sell a kidney, I’ll rob a bank, I’ll black mail a rich person. Whatever it takes, I’ll find a way (although I’m obviously kidding about some of those). And if we had such a rare and valuable fossil we could use to garner attention and support.

Although, I appreciate your passion for our past history, I need to emphasize how little credit or notice the central coast gave us of our finds…..Only until, the LA Museum of Natural History, were we even able to get anywhere. This is also true for the McGilvray Brain as well.

All the more reason the Central Coast could use a museum.

Most people who are in our shoes can not afford to go to these facilities for 3 weeks of their lives and with their loved ones who also miss work. We began to think, what are the odds of this spectacular find of a fossilized whale brain providing for a neuro center to help people regain their lives.? What is wrong with giving people a chance of possibilities, they thought would never happen.

Too true. Well I remember reading that the ideal situation is that someone buys the fossil and donates it to a museum. Who knows how long it could take to sell. What if I got an organization up that the fossil could be donated to? Again, we could use such a rare and important find.

here is an article coming out in the Naturalist and National Geographic. Reading about these great finds and their historical studies is often HOW we learn…..it’s OK that they do not reside right here.

She’s right. I mean, Los Angeles has a a museum for it’s fossils. As does San Bernardino County. Barstow’s “Miocene Motherland” has that museum and the Raymond Alf Museum. San Diego fossils have a home right in Balboa Park. A great deal of Montana’s and Utah’s dinosaurian wealth are nestled in their native range. As are the fossils of New Mexico, Oregon, and northern California. Orange County has the Cooper Center to salvage and preserve their rich paleontological and archaeological past. The tar pits, Diamond Valley, and the Fairmead Landfill all have museums built on site to house their spectacular finds. Nebraska and Florida, two of the best states for Cenozoic fossils, both have committed museums of their own. And don’t forget the Royal Tyrrell Museum. I mean really, why should the Central Coast have one? It’s not like there are any fossil whale brains, butchered mastodons, remains of ice age megafauna, a Miocene version of the Serengeti, the denizens of a sub-tropical rainforest, the transition into open landscapes, a unique island fauna, or dozens and dozens of marine organisms from around here. Nope, nothing that needs an outlet of its own (ok there is the museum in Santa Barbara, but they don’t have much in the way of Central Coast fossils. I would try to realize my dream through them, but they seem happy doing what they are doing and probably don’t what to get caught up in my ambitious delusions).

Why do all those other fossils get to stay in their native lands while ours don’t? I don’t get it. But Meredith Riven of the Cooper Center suggests one possibility:

Another issue is the curatorial crisis – all museums are out of space. LACM, UCMP, SDNHM all have issues finding room for more collections. So at least we can help with some of that. Of course, we are out of space too but since we didn’t start with much at least we have room to grow. Funding that is the next challenge.

See, another reason my museum could be of use. I know museums like to brag about their vast collections, but when does it get too big to manage? Some of these large museums have had new species named from their fossils because they just sat around for 50, 75, even 100 years but because they were “lost” amongst such vast collections they just gathered dust until someone came along. If we were able to bring the fossils of the Central Coast back home, the big museums (Berkeley and Los Angeles) would have some room freed up for their current and future collecting activities. And as noted above, they would still be a relatively short distance away. It’s not like I’m trying to relocate them across the country.

Might I suggest that you volunteer at a Museum or that you further your career in one of these arenas of study?
The archeology at Cal Poly could use a little help……you could start there.

I have tried that. Santa Barbara doesn’t have an active paleontology program. I tried talking to folks at the LA Museum. But apparently I can’t go down for one weekend a month and volunteer there. I have tried going on their field trips to Red Rock Canyon, but those don’t really do much in the way of actually exercising my passion. I mean, yeah I found a fossil, but i couldn’t partake in digging it out or jacketing it, even though I have read about the process all my life, watched countless videos about it, and even practiced it on cow bones in my backyard. Plus, i never really felt like i fit in there. I tried to mingle with the people and the scientists, but i just never felt accepted. Unlike so many of the people there, I haven’t this trip year after year after year (some of the younger folk there are even going to college, or plan to, to pursue a career in paleontology.) so i don’t know many people. I just felt like that weird, stupid, bumbling kid who all the other kids in class just put up with because they are forced to be in proximity to each other. I have done that and trips with the San Bernardino County Museum. But it’s never anything substantive, just pay them and go on a little field trip, nothing like what volunteers and scientists get to do.

I have tried talking to a paleontologist at the LA museum about trying to access their Central Coast material so that i might try to publish a paper on some of it. I thought this would help me get into a university, get to exercise my passion for paleontology, learn more about my home region’s rich fossil record, and share that information with the world. But nope, it got shot down. Apparently community college students don’t count in the grand scheme of things. I have a learning disability and have always struggled with school. God knows if I’ll be able to even get into a university, let alone survive one. All the while i get to sit back and read day in and day out about people going out into the field, finding, and working with fossils. I even read about small museums who managed to create successful paleontology programs but apparently they got something i don’t. I have tried desperately to get off the sidelines but my efforts have for the most part been futile (cause who wants to help a failure like me pursue a career). I am nothing more than a fossil fanboy. I don’t find any fossils, I don’t publish any papers, I don’t volunteer, I don’t teach people about paleontology. I am a ghost in the paleontology community.

People keep telling me that I should to be a teacher. Well i thought with this museum idea of mine, i could not only go into the field and build a collection of fossils, but also share them with the community, teaching people about the science of paleontology, the fossil history of the Central Coast, and the world beyond. It sounds unrealistic, but again Meredith Riven shines some light:

Anything is possible. If brains can fossilize, you can be a paleontologist

The Museum of the Rockies started off with only 3 dinosaur fossils and now they house the largest collection of United States dinosaur fossils known. The little Burpee Museum in Rockford, Illinois was just another small, unknown local museum and now they have a successful paleontology program going. Xiaoming Wang didn’t think there were any fossils in the cliffs above our campground at Red Rock Canyon and yet I managed to find bone fragments up there. And yes, fossilized whale brains. So don’t say something is unrealistic.

The Grand Vision may sound unrealistic, but I’m only 23 (closing in on 24), so who knows what I can pull off in the next 5, 10, 20 years? The Marmarth Research Foundation managed to garner enough funds to build a field laboratory for fossil prep and curation. Marmarth is out in the middle of nowhere. San Luis Obispo County is a well populated, well traveled spot in the most populous state in the country. Who in the world could predict who may show up in support of such a project? Only time will tell.

So I’m back in the game loyal readers. It’s time to stop moping and focus that energy instead on working to bring the Grand Vision to life!

Till next time!

The Fossil Whale Brains of SLO County

Hey there every peoples!

A quick post today to take advantage of a piece of news while it was fresh. I came across this story in today’s edition of The Telegram Tribune, our local newspaper. It is a story about an incredible find that for me is not only heart warming but also infuriating. Let’s dive right in!

Around nine years ago, a local woman named Pepper O’Shaughnessy was wandering about her family’s property when she noticed something sticking out of a sand bank. She pulled it and had no idea what she just found. What she was holding was a 15 million year old fossilized whale brain. You read that right a fossilized whale brain. Now fossilized brains have been found before, most notably among dinosaurs. But these are usually endocasts, molds of the inside of the skull that show the rough outline of the brain. This whale brain is something else, according to Howel Thomas and Lawrence Barnes, a marine mammal experts at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The fossil whale brain found right here in SLO County!

Dubbed the Olson specimen, the brain is very complete and detailed, so much so that it was initially thought to be brain coral. But further analysis revealed it to be an actual brain and not an invertebrate imitation. And what makes the story more incredible is that this isn’t the first whale brain found in SLO County. Back in the 1940s a partial whale brain was found near Paso Robles, on what is now the Halter Ranch. The specimen is owned by Templeton man Bob MacGillivray of Templeton. According to him, his specimen is not as complete as the Olson specimen but more detailed. And to make these fossils even more amazing is that they each represent different types of whales. The Olson specimen is from a baleen whale and the MacGillivray specimen is from a toothed whale. Alright Howel and Lawrence, lay it on us why these fossils are a big deal (from a preliminary report):

“To have two fossil whale brains from the same geographic area, from the same time period, with the same type of preservation and representing both orders of whales is simply incredible,”

While the MacGillivray specimen is on loan to the LA Museum, the Olsons have other plans for their fossil. This requires a trip back to 1998. Pepper O’Shaughnessy’s niece, Tara Olson, and her friends were coming back from a concert in Paso Robles when she fell asleep at the wheel and wrecked here car. Tara survived the accident but suffered brain damage. Doctors thought that she’d be paralyzed for life and would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of her days. But Tara fought on. She was sent to the Brucker Biofeedback Center in Miami, Florida. With sheer tenacity and attitude, she was able to get back on her feet in 3 weeks. She now walks with a cane and has some trouble speaking, but considering her original prognosis, she’s accomplished the unthinkable. Now the Olson family wants to help others with neurological troubles by opening a branch of Brucker Center on the west coast, right here in SLO County. And they plan on using their rarest of fossils to fund it. They hope to find a philanthropist to sell the fossil to. The ideal situation is to use the money to at least get the ball rolling on the neurological center and the donor would donate the fossil to a museum. While i am staunchly opposed to the sale of fossils, this plan doesn’t sound so bad, assuming it went as planned. But what museum would it go to? Alas, that is where this story really gets to me.

If it were to end up in a museum, it would probably be LA. Now i know that would be a good place for it, considering they have the staff and facilities to properly curate and research the specimen. But hear me out. You heard how incredible and important the find is, having two fossil whale brains from the same time and place (from my home of SLO County no less). Add to that the fact that a cast of a sperm whale brain was found in Los Olivos, that makes three whale brains known from the Central Coast. But if the brains went to LA (the Los Olivos specimen is there), then they will have left their “native land”, relegated to the cavernous collections of a (relatively) foreign museum.

The reason i want to start a museum here on the Central Coast is to tell the surprisingly rich story of it’s ancient past. I have come to learn that the Central Coast is full of amazing fossils but almost none are displayed anywhere and finding information on them is quite difficult to say the least.There is a fascinating story to be told here, but it’s not being told. It’s treasures, the fossils, the very words that compose this story are locked away in distant museums. These whale brains would be a great asset to a museum on the Central Coast, but chances are they go elsewhere, to be stored and eventually forgotten.

This is a saga  that i have seen paly out time and time again. Fossil whales were found on the Channel Islands, a place thought to only harbor Pleistocene mammoth bones, ended up in Los Angeles. The same goes for whale fossils found in the vicinity of Lompoc. And other items over the years. I feel the surprising abundance of fossils should be where it can be appreciated and shared, which i feel would be here on the Central Coast. Why don’t these fossils go to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History? It’s a local museum, it should display local fossils! Unfortunately, the museum never had a paleontology curator or an active collecting program. Their fossil collection is limited and simply pales in comparison to the collections of LA and Berkeley, where most of my beloved Central Coast fossils reside. I have toyed with the idea that rather than try to start my own museum up here, instead help the Santa Barbara Museum build their collections. Maybe even create a satellite, like the Sea Center, except devoted to paleontology. But that’s assuming they wanted any part in my lofty ambitions. From what i can gather they  seem happy doing what they are now.

I’m sure all this ranting will amount to nothing. I may have my convictions, but people won’t give a damn. I’m sure that those with the LA Museum and Berkeley will brush my thoughts off as petulant self-entitlement, that they got the fossils first and have no obligation of turning them loose to a regional institution. And they’d be right. I’m nobody. They are are world renowned institutions who run large, successful collecting programs, produce quality research, and conduct important public programs. I’m just some community college hack who sits at home whining about things beyond his control. But this simple fact, that the rich fossil history of the Central Coast is carted away and hidden from the world, and that i can’t do anything about it, is once of the biggest factors in my depression. It is perhaps the biggest source of this overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness that i have to constantly fight. I could put on a fantastic museum with all the fossils i have learned were found hauled away from the Central Coast. The fact that i probably never could, since a significant portion of them are kept at large scale museums, is a most bitter pill to swallow. I can’t help but think it will haunt me forever.

My depression aside, this was a very interesting story. The intentions with the fossil are honorable and Tara’s story of recovery is inspiring. Hopefully these world class fossils will find a good home. I just wish it were the one i created for them…

Till next time.

Critters Abroad: Alamosaurus

Hey there every peoples!

This post goes out to a little known sauropod who got a boost from a recent paper. I could try to build it up but you already know who it is from the title. Today i want to talk about Alamosaurus and how he pertains to my grandiose ambitions.

Right off the bat, let’s get the common misconception out of the way. Alamosaurus is not named for the Alamo in Texas! It is instead named after a cottonwood tree (in a round about sort of way). The first fossils were discovered in the Ojo Alamo formation of New Mexico in 1922 (dinosaurs come mostly from the Naashoibito member, which many consider part of the Kirtland formation). The dinosaur was named for the formation it was found in, which in turn was named after the Ojo Alamo Trading Post which was in turn named after a cottonwood tree growing next to a nearby spring (Alamo is the local Spanish name for cottonwood trees). It would be a long while after this initial discovery that Alamosaurus would be found in Texas. This dinosaur has so far been restricted to the American southwest, being found in New Mexico, Texas, and Utah (with that last one representing the northernmost extent of Alamosaurus’ range). So far the two most complete specimens are an adult from the North Horn formation of Utah and a juvenile from Big Bend National Park in Texas.

Aside from those 2, many isolated bones have been referred Alamoaurus. How do we know these bones are Alamosaurus? Well for the same reason that Alamosaurus is unique among North American sauropods. Alamosaurus lived at the end of the Cretaceous period, 69 to 65 million years ago. For a long time in paleontology this represented a bit of an enigma. The late Jurassic was the heyday, it seemed, of North America’s giant long necked plant-eaters. But after reaching such a high diversity they all just vanished at the close of the Jurassic period. There was a gap of over 75 million years before the arrival of Alamosaurus into North America. Even though a large crop of early Cretaceous sauropods have been found in Utah (as well as a couple in Texas and Oklahoma) that shows they persisited well into the Cretaceous, they still managed to peter out around 100 million years ago. There wouldn’t be a sauropod in North America until Alamosaurs arrived in the late Cretaceous. Why? Scientists are still working that one that. The currently accepted view is that Alamosaurus migrated north from South America. This idea is supported by the fact that Alamosaurus was a titanosaur, a group of sauropods who thrived throughout the Cretaceous in the southern hemisphere. So far Alamosaurus is the only late Cretaceous sauropod in North America, so scientists can be fairly confident that when they find a sauropod in strata younger than 70 million years it is probably Alamosaurus.

Brian Switek once said “For years, one of the cardinal sins of paleontology illustration was showing a Tyrannosaurus attacking a sauropod dinosaur.” This was largely due to T. rex living tens of millions of years after the last sauropods died out. But a face off between the tyrant lizard king and a lumbering sauropod was declared a possibility when in 2005 a T. rex specimen was found in Utah’s North Horn formation. Since one of the most complete specimens of Alamosaurus was found in the same strata, it is reasonable to assume they lived at the same time and place. Though i find it interesting that few reconstructions of a T. rex attacking Alamosaurus have been rendered, considering that they have both been known from the same areas for some time (The north Horn formation, Utah; Javalina formation, Texas; and New Mexico). Nonetheless, one or two have emerged (though i couldn’t find any to post here).

Recently the big guy got another boost to his public image. Not too long ago paleontologists Denver Fowler (Museum of the Rockies) and Robert Sullivan (State Museum of Pennsylvania) published fragmentary specimens from New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. The fragments proved to be especially large, so the two scientists compared two vertebra fragments ( cervical and caudal) and a distal femur to some dinosaurs from South America, a continent that has produced many contenders for the title of largest dinosaur*. Specifically, they compared Alamosaurus to Puertasaurus and Futalognkosaurus and found that the Alamosauruses from which the three specimens came from (each was found in a different location, ruling out that they came from a single, abnormally large individual) were in the same ballpark in terms of size. Of course, this is all based on fragmentary remains:

Cervical vertebra fragment of Alamosaurus (top, in posterior and right lateral views) compared to cervical vertebra of Puertasaurus (bottom, in anterior and right lateral views). From Fowler and Sullivan, 2011

Caudal vertebra of Alamosaurus (first 3: vertebra 2-4 from the North Horn specimen. Fourth: fragment from the San Juan Basin, New Mexico) compared to caudal vertebra of Futalognkosaurus. From Fowler and Sullivan, 2011

*(I define “largest” by mass. It just seems like the best measurement to determine who is bigger than another. For example, a giraffe is much taller than an elephant and yet it is the elephant who is granted the title of largest living land mammal. Another example is the Arctic lion’s mane jellyfish and the blue whale. Even though the jelly fish can grow longer, the whale is considered bigger because it is exponentially heavier. Plain and simple, putting two of any of these animals on a scale against each other, the scale will always tip towards who is heavier. So i think the best definition of largest is by weight)

The Alamosaurus material is all incomplete bones, Puertasaurus is based on four vertebra, and Futalognkosaurus is known from a significant section of the spinal column made up of 3 individuals. These animals have been estimated between 90 and 110 feet long and anywhere between 80 and 100 tons. Since Alamosaurus appears to be of a similar size, that would make it North America’s largest dinosaur, surpassing the two current contenders Supersaurus (108 to 112 ft long and 35 to 40 tons) and Sauroposeidon (~80 ft long, 56 ft tall, and 55-65 tons).  Of course, Alamosaurus and Sauroposeidon are known from very fragmented (and in the case of Sauroposeidon limited) materiel, so knowing just how bulky and proportioned they were is going to take a lot more fossils and study.

While throwing North America back into the ring as far as fossil records go, Denver Fowler apparently had another goal intended with this paper. He wrote in a comment on Dinosaur tracking:

Anyway, the “biggest dinosaur” label is fun, but I was hoping that this paper might drum up some further interest in the New Mexico faunas. We really need to get down there with larger field teams and find more complete specimens of the unique fauna.

Over the past 20 years or so, fieldwork by Bob Sullivan (State Museum PA) and the NMMNH has identified a number of good fossil sites and horizons. I would really like to see the New Mexico Late Cretaceous achieve something similar to the great work the Utah crew have done in the Kaiparowits (and elsewhere, e.g. the early Cretaceous).

To which i replied in the same post:

While not as a result of your paper (well, a little bit), I do have interest in the late cretaceous of New Mexico. I got hooked by the idea of dinosaur provincialism (boosted by the description of Bistahieversor (god, that’s a hard name to spell and pronounce!)) and as such want to build a provincial collection. No one has any idea how much i have been chomping at the bit to go search the Two Medicine, Kaiparowits, and Kirtland formations (and maybe the El Gallo formation in Baja California. Anyone got good relations with Mexico?). I agree that the late Cretaceous of New Mexico does warrant more exploration. Wish i could be out there right now looking for Titanoceratops, Bistahieversor, Kritosaurus, and their countrparts to the north. Unfortunately, i’m just a community college student at the moment and am so far having trouble just looking for fossils in my home county. But at least your paper has given me one more incentive!

As some of you might know, i have a rather unrealistic vision of opening my own museum some day (which i feel like is likely never to happen. I figured i might be better off helping some other museum. We’ll just have to wait and see) and part of that vision is building a provincial collection of dinosaurs. It would consist of: Two Medicine formation in Montana for north; Kirtland formation in New Mexico for south; and the El Gallo formation in Baja California for west. While it would be nice to dig into the Kaiparowits to complete the north-south chain, the El Gallo has priority for me (but if i can’t get search the El Gallo, the Kaiparowits will make a nice back up). As i mentioned above many consider the Ojo Alamo formation to be part of the Kirtland formation. While it doesn’t necessarily fit with the typical idea of dinosaur provincialism, I said i wanted to search the Kirtland formation so that means looking in this member as well. And why not? Finding more of the (possibly) largest dinosaur in North America, finding new species, fleshing out what the south looked like at the end of the Cretaceous (so much has been focused on the north, namely the Hell Creek formation) sounds awfully enticing. This rock preserves the final chapter of North America’s dinosaurs. Considering that so little has been done in the Ojo Alamo formation, it’s sounds like a fantastic place to break new ground (like several other instances in this post, no pun was intended). That’s plenty reason enough for me! So thanks Denver and Robert for giving me another reason to go to New Mexico for my dinosaurs.

Till next time!