“Better Know a Museum” Month Part 3: Trash for Treasure in Madera County

Hey there every peoples!

Fossil discovery is the stuff of legends. News reports, books, and documentaries portray paleontologists searching the forsaken terrain of far off lands, roughing it like cowboys. Cut off from the hustle and bustle of modern society, they have retreated to perhaps one of the last wild spaces on earth, free to scour the badlands for the bones of long forgotten creatures. Eyes to the ground, the keep a sharp vigil for any sign that a bone is peeking out of the ground. Any thing is welcome, but the remains of a beast new to science is the greatest prize to be had. It is the romantic vision most often conjured by the secondhand story teller as well as common people who hear the word paleontologist. This version was true back in the early days of paleontology, and it still occurs in some of the more remote parts of the world.

But that is the glamorous version of paleontology. A more “mundane” series of events is arguably more common in paleontology. That is especially true here in California, the most populous state in the country. Here, fossils are found (for the most part) not in far flung deserts, but right under our feet. I am of course talking about fossils discovered during construction projects.

Like i said, we are the most populous state in the nation and that means lots of development. Housing, businesses, infrastructure, you name it! Whether the ground needs to be leveled for a foundation or we need lots of dirt for fill-in, the men in hard hats are constantly tearing into the earth. And it’s not like there is any shortage of examples. The world famous fossils of the La Brea Tar Pits were discovered when the asphalt was being harvested to help pave the streets of LA. The Diamond Valley Lake local fauna were found during the construction of a reservoir. Emma, the southern mammoth from Moorpark, was uncovered by a bulldozer during construction of a housing development. And it’s because of such rapid and constant development that the Cooper Center exists, since the county needed someplace to keep all of the fossils turning up. The list simply goes on and on. In fact, finding fossils in construction zones became such a common occurence that California has a law requiring construction outfits to have a paleontologist onsite to collect and preserve any fossils uncovered during operations. Despite all that we have found in the pursuit of progress, we never know what we may accidentally uncover next (on a local level, if they actually do develop Price Canyon, it’s anyone’s guess what may surface). Just such a find was made in the spring of 1993 at perhaps the last place anyone would expect to find fossils: a municipal dump.

Landfills (dumps to the layman) are a little more complex than is commonly thought. Instead of just dumping everything into one giant trash heap, the refuse is spread out over a flat plane and then covered with earth. A new trash layer is then laid on top and covered with earth; rinse and repeat. This method of trash disposal requires copious amounts of new dirt, so the onsite quarries can get pretty deep. It was during this routine exercise that the first clues were found. A mammoth tusk was found 35 feet below the surface on that fateful day in 1993. I cool find, but hardly news worthy. But then another bone was found. And another. This garbage dump in the boondocks of California was rapidly turning into an ice age goldmine.To date, several thousand specimens from 39 different species have been found.

And these aren’t your standard ice age fossils. Although much work needs to be done, the presence of certain species indicates that the site date to the Irvingtonian, which means the fossils could be anywhere from 300,000 to 1.8 million years old (though most references i’ve seen estimate the site to be between 500 and 700 thousand years old). Irvingtonian sites are rarer than the younger Rancho La Brean sites. To find fossils from his time is always exciting, but the Fairmead Landfill goes beyond the pail, giving us an unimaginable quantity of fossils. This gives us a snapshot of life in a time that is not as well understood as we like.

And just like Ranch La Brea and Diamond Valley, a museum was created to showcase the incredible fossils being found at the Fairmead Landfill. Built across the road from the landfill itself, it took on the title of Fossil Discovery Center of Medera County. Completed in 2010, they now teach people about this amazing discovery (though apparently they moonlight in other areas of the San Joaquin Valley) through exhibits, interactives, and programs. And in the end, isn’t that what we are really here to see?

The first thing you encounter within is a mammoth. Or rather, the floating disembodied head of a mammoth:

Aw man, that’s soooo fake! You can totally see the wires!

Idea was to display the skull at the height it would have been in life. That actually isn’t a bad idea when a skull is all you have. I took that shot in the summer of last year. Needless to say they upgraded their display, as can be seen this photo i shamelessly stole from their facebook page:

The mammoth skull got a body, it’s a Christmas miracle!

They have a small case about geologic time and some posters about the animals found at Fairmead. The majority of the display in this room is some glass and wood cabinets filled with fossils from the site. Most of them are horse bones, since they are the most common animals found at the site. In Rancho La Brean sites, horse are second to bison in abundance. But since this site hails from the earlier Irvingtonian, bison hadn’t reached North America yet. In the time before bison, horses were the most common large mammal in North American ecosystems. Here are but a few:

A nearly complete horse skull. woot!

Horse foot bones. Anyone up for a game of footsies?

Just some run of the mill horse leg bones.

Horses may crowd the stage but they are by no means the only ones. The second most common animals are camels:

Screw dinosaurs, those are some gnarly deadly looking teeth!

It’s the fossil toe bone of an extinct camel. No, i’m not doing the obvious joke.

Other animals include:

Scutes from a western pond turtle

Antler of a deer

Horn core of Tetrameryx irvingtonensis, a small pronghorn

A jaw bone from some kind of mystery critter…

After leaving this room we walk past the prep lab where new discoveries are prepped for storage and display:

A volunteer hard at work bringing the Pleistocene to life

And into the other main exhibit space:

Horses and camels and sloths, oh my!

Here they have some cast skeletons of ice age animals behind small cases of fossils. I rather like this approach, as it seems to solve the issue of having those impressive, eye catching pieces as well as the real stuff. This section also enlightens us on the carnivores found at Fairmead. As i always tell people, carnivores are much rarer in the fossils record because there are always many more herbivores than carnivores in an ecosystem. While more detailed study is needed, initial analysis of the sediment, plants, state of the fossils indicates the animals died and were buried around a watering hole. While this type of environment is always an animal magnate, it isn’t particularly biased toward carnivores. So the fact that this isn’t a carnivore trap but has produced several carnivore fossils is astonishing. Dire wolf and American cheetah are known from some fragmentary jaws. Homotherium also made an appearance in the assemblage. If i remember the spiel the volunteer gave me, the short-faced bear is known from a single fossil. But most spectacular of all is the saber-toothed cat skull:

Unfortunately, it’s just a picture on an info plaque…

This skull is labeled “Smilodon sp.” but they hint that it may be a new species. At this point in time the reigning Smilodon species was Smilodon gracilis which is known from other Irvingtonian age sites in California, Florida, and i think a few other places. Even though the formidable canines broke off long ago, it i nonetheless incredible to have a skull, especially since whole saber cat skulls are unknown from this time. When i was last there in August, i had heard that Dr. Robert Dundas, Professor of Vertebrate Paleontology at CSU Fresno, was working on describing this and other specimens. Needless to say, i can’t wait to get my hands on that paper! None of the carnivore fossils were actually on display, which is a bummer. But not a total loss when you see what i talk about near the end.

Beside the prep lab was a small prep area where a guy from CSU Fresno (can’t remember his name cause I’m a dolt. Nice guy though, actually remembered me on my second visit) was working on some mosasaur bones from the Moreno formation in Fresno County. I think he was outside the prep lab because the blocks were too big. Remember, this museum was built with Fairmead fossils in mind, so they are used to working on isolated bones, not huge blocks containing marine reptiles. In fact the blocks are so heavy, the university guy told me that they broke an engine lift (those rigs used to hoist the engines out of cars) trying to move them.

Prepping some mosasaur bones

The last of the exhibits consists of a water hole outback (so far, it can only be seen through a window) meant to resemble what they thought the landfill looked like over half a million years ago. And if you look past it, across the road, you can see how it looks today, a mn made mountain designed to house our waste. But if it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have all the glorious fossils that made this museum possible.

The Fairmead Landfill, from then to now

Finally, the gift shop! Why include the gift shop in a review of a museum? I got three words for you: casts for sale!

A partial right mandible of a dire wolf and a tooth of a camel. Both of these casts were made from specimens found at the Fairmead Landfill

Seriously, how cool is that? If you saw my review of the Alf Museum, you’ll remember how stoked i was over those fossil casts Andrew Farke gave me. I love these casts here for the same reason as Andy’s. They are unlike all the other casts you find for sale. Most companies seem to have the same cast, taken from the same specimen. This can make things in the cast market rather bland because it’s just the exact same thing everywhere. I mean, they all have the same pristine cast of a dire wolf skull from Rancho La Brea. But it has no character, especially if everyone else has it. But the jaw previously mentioned is far above that skull. Why? Because it’s cast from an actual fossil found at the Fairmead Landfill. It comes a lesser known site, showing that animals we accommodate with a world famous site actually did live elsewhere. Not only that, but it’s incomplete. Yes, i just used incompleteness as a selling point. It’s rough, it’s textured, it has it’s own unique form. Same for the camel tooth. When everyone has the exact same cast, when you see that cast all over the web and even in museums, you forget that the fossil it came from was once a living animal whose remains has survived untold millenia to get here today. Getting a cast is not only the ultimate paleo souvenir, but it preserves the sense of awe and wonder inherent in it’s original fossil, especially when it comes from your homeland or a site that hasn’t been beaten to death (like Rancho La Brea). As such, i honestly don’t understand why more museums aren’t doing this. I mean, the Fossil Discovery Center made $45 off of me (actually, more like $75. I bought a second dire wolf jaw for the Ray Alf Museum) because they casted some of their fossils. They don’t have to be the big uber specimens seen in the exhibit hall, but smaller stuff in the $10 to $50 to even $60 range. Just look at the specimens displayed in the mammal hall at the San Bernardino County Museum. Those cases are full of teeth, jaws, and other bones from Cajon Pass, Barstow, and various Pleistocene localities that would be perfect candidates for gift shop casts ( I predict an 83% chance that Eric Scott with show up in the comments to shout “DON’T TEMPT ME!!!”). Every fossil is unique and yet we only cast what we deem to be pleasing to the eyes. It’s not about how perfect or complete a fossil is. It’s about the story it has to tell. Because the Fossil Discovery Center sold a cast of one of their specimens, i now have my own copy of the story of a fierce predator who stalked verdant wilds of California long before his famous counterparts were even around to stumble into a tar pit. If i ever get my museum going, you bet that i will sell casts of fossils that we find, in the hopes that they can continue to tell their story after people have left.

Over all, this museum seems pretty bland bare, but give it a chance. You have to remember, it’s only 2 years old. All museums start out small. Even the mighty institutions like NHMLAC and the Field Museum started out no bigger than 3 times the size of the Fossil Discovery Center. My only gripe is they don’t have any carnivore material on display, but hopefully that will change once they get published. They do have lots of original fossils on display and they are unique among other fossil collections. I fucking love the idea of selling casts and the staff (including the guy on the mosasaur) are friendly and helpful. Sure it’s off the beaten path, but I say it’s still worth checking out. They may not have the huge collections or elaborate exhibits of other museums, but for something just starting out, it ain’t bad at all. I can only hope my own museum will be half as big or good looking as the Fossil Discovery Center if i ever get it built.

Next week, join us for the somewhat thrilling conclusion to “Better Know a Museum” Month, where i tackle the juggernaut that is the Age of Mammals Hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Is it good? Are the exhibits sound? How does it measure up to the Dinosaur Halls? Stay Tuned!

Til next time!

One thought on ““Better Know a Museum” Month Part 3: Trash for Treasure in Madera County

  1. “Better Know a Museum Month Part 3: Trash for
    Treasure in Madera County | A Central Coast Paleontologist” naokomccracken ended up being a superb article.

    If merely there were far more blogs such as this particular one on the cyberspace.
    Anyhow, many thanks for your time, Bettie

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