Red Rock Canyon 2012

Hey there every peoples!

My God it’s been forever since I’ve done a post. Needless to say school’s been complete and total hell. After just a week and a half after it started, the strain was just too much to bear. I actually ended up dropping one of my classes. That seemed to take the pressure off a little bit but in the end really didn’t improve things all that much. I’m still doing horribly in my two current classes. One is a combination geometry and trigonometry class and the other one is intro to chemistry. Throughout my life I’ve always hated math and loved science. But I am having such a hard time with chemistry that I’m feeling the opposite. I find myself actually kind of liking the math (ok, tolerating, not liking) and hating the science. As you can imagine this has all done “wonders” for my fight against the Noonday Demon. So not only has school kept me mired down but October was a very busy month for me. First I went to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios; and then there was Prehistoric OC for National Fossil Day in Buena Park; then there was helping grandma clear the sand off her rental home’s driveway; a trip to the Ernst Quarries to look for fossils; and finally last weekend which were about to discuss. Now since school has started there’s been a post I’ve been working on and off but I just haven’t had much time to work on it. But I really want to get it up and a few other posts but first I want to talk about this weekend while still fresh in my mind.

The three or four people who actually follow my blog will know that since 2010 I have attended the natural history Museum of Los Angeles County’s field trip to Red Rock Canyon State Park. It’s really a fantastic trip not just because all the great planning that goes into it by the education department, but also because you get to go look for fossils with the actual scientists. Last year I actually managed to find an ulna from a camel. So with last year turning out so well, how this year turn out? Well I’ll tell you: meh.

Well just like last year I was one of the first non-staff member people there. That is because it takes me over four hours to get there and so I leave early in the morning. And so that afternoon Dave Whistler was nice enough to let me tag along on a scouting sortie to look for potential localities. The spot we found was not far from where we went last year. And as usual there were plenty of root casts and bone fragments all around, but nothing out of the ordinary. Though while I was out there I did manage take a bit of a spill down a rocky slope! Not long after that we piled back into Dave’s truck and headed back to camp. And for about half the trip Dave was constantly lamenting the fact that Red Rock Canyon hasn’t had a decent rain in a decade. Paleontologists love rain because it exposes new fossils. But the longer the locality goes without rain the harder it is to find anything. But he was also lamenting the fact that there so few places that we can actually access with this number of people, so unfortunately our options are limited.

Getting ready to scout the locality.

Once we got back to camp I quickly adjusted what little gear I had on me and hiked up onto the ridge overlooking our camp. I have gone up there the last couple years because Dave says that I can usually find something up there. The last two years yielded just random bone fragments. But this year I actually had the good fortune of finding about three piles of associated fragments. I mean, they’re still fragments but at least they’re associated (meaning I found them together). And I also found two pieces of a large bone that I’ll talk about a little later. It was really cool to find these pieces because Xiaoming didn’t really believe that there is anything up there (because it’s on such a high slope nothing would survive). Well I finally did manage to find something and again you’ll see that later.

The view from atop the ridge, facing away from camp.

And so the next day after breakfast and orientation we headed out to the spot and I was actually a little bit optimistic. I mean, I actually found quite a handful of fragments the previous day so who knows what I would find out there. boy was I in for a disappointment!  I was finding the typical fragments, but they were few and far between. now I scoured a large area and even wandered over to the spot that we searched last year. It was almost like the earth was mocking me. I found a few little splinters that looked like they could lead to something more. So I dug out my dig knife and paintbrush and started clearing away the dirt. But then it just all started breaking up into more fragments. So I ditched the paint brush and gently blew on it. That also obliterated it more. Ugh! And if that wasn’t enough, check this out:

At first i thought this may have been the skull or jaw of a horse. But upon closer inspection, it was nothing more than a weird collection of rocks. *Sigh*…

Just like that. Every time I found a bone the Dove Springs formation was spitting it in my face, like some sort of contemptuous pity. And the next day was even worse! The bigwigs decided to have us hike to a valley behind the campground. Oh holy hell the substrate sucked! It was so covered and full of rocks and the outcrops were covered by this kind of hard sandy crust. At least at the other locality I managed to find a big pile of fragments. And what did I find here?

The Lone Sliver

That’s right: one measly fragment! And not only that, it was a wash bone (meaning I found it in the wash. These fragments are pretty much disregarded by the scientists because they’ve been washed away from their original burial site). Dr. Dave did manage to locate one of his old micro-sites. I guess that was something. So it sounds like the pickings were slim. I mean even if I can’t find something then neither can anyone else right? Have you forgotten who were talking about here? Other people found:

A partial foot bone

Another partial limb element

A horse tooth

Another horse tooth

A camel tooth

Some bone from a carnivore

As if that wasn’t bad enough, on the first Saturday foray, someone found a fragment of bone up on a hill top. When they picked it up, they could see there was more bone inside the hill. So they call over Dr. Dave as is standard operating procedure. He starts brushing and scraping away the dirt and the more he does the more bone he finds. That’s when young upstart Gary arrives on the scene and commandeers the operation (at least, that’s what went down according to Dave). Soon enough they had uncovered the complete foot of an ancient horse. But that wasn’t all. Next to the horse’s heel bone was a partial jaw and teeth of an antelope. But the pit was saving the best for last. As they finished uncovering the horse’s hoof, there is another bit of bone at its tip. But even these seasoned veterans of the field were unprepared for what came next. Inch by meticulous inch that little bit of bone slowly grew into the complete lower jaw of an enormous cat. The jaw bone was not only long but it was incredibly deep, twice as deep as the jaws of other feline predators known from the formation. As Xiaoming, the resident carnivore expert, leaned in and looked at the cat’s characteristic teeth, he was blown away. Calling upon his expert knowledge of carnivores, he suspected that the cat was not only new to the area, but that it also may have been a progenitor of the Machairodont lineage of saber tooth cats.

Full view of the site. The horse bones take up the center of the shot and the cat jaw is to the top left.

The cat jaw that everyone was fixated on.

So not only did someone find a miniature multi-species bonebed, but they also probably found one of the most exciting fossils ever found in the park. I what was old Doug left with? Bupkis:

A partial scapula or shoulder blade. This is the big bone i fond up on the ridge. It’s either a gomphothere, rhino, or uber camel. There’s too little to tell for sure.

The distal end of a limb bone crushed flat.

A fragment of bone bearing the gnaw marks of an ancient dog.

A fragment of a cannon bone from one of the Miocene’s many diminutive pronghorn antelopes.

As for the crushed limb bone? Well in the field I thought it might’ve been part of a calcanium (heel bone). Then a girl who’s been on this trip many times more than I have, didn’t think so. Geez, am I so bad that I’m being corrected by a high school girl? And well what a surprise she was right. Even though Dave and Gary thought it could be a calcanium, Xiaoming thought it was the end of a long bone (which I came to agree with). People kept telling me that I did find something, but that provided little (if any) consolation. Everyone knows that my little pile of crap was getting hucked aside like yesterday’s garbage because it wasn’t as complete or informative as what other people found. I pleaded with Xiaoming to at least keep the chew bone (that could be used for educational purposes) but in the end it probably fell by the wayside as well.

“But Doug”, I hear you saying, “you found that camel bone last year, can’t you be proud of that?” Well yeah, I mean, I am proud of it, but I’m afraid that I will become that guy who has one moment of glory and just coasts on it. You know the kind of guy who looks for every opportunity to bring it up and everyone else is like “oh God, again with that stupid camel bone?” Besides, I remember Xiaoming telling me that it wasn’t as well preserved and many of the diagnostic features were gone. That cat jaw will probably get prepped ASAP back at the museum, cataloged, and published while my camel bone will get stuffed in a cabinet and forgotten about. I say that I believe every fossil is important, but I’m sure if Orwell were a paleontologist, the barn in Animal Farm may have read “all fossils are important but some are more important than others.” And indeed that is true but hopefully you get the idea. But in the end what’s it matter. It’s not like there’s anything real at stake besides the bruised pride of some depressed wannabe.

I could say that the social situation was a bit better. The education staff were friendlier (especially Karen and Brayden) and somewhat more concerned (after my episode up on the ridge that is). Field trip veteran Bridget was nice as usual when we are actually interacting. And I managed to chat with Dave and Xiaoming, for however briefly. I don’t know, I was still feeling the same as the other trips. Watching some of these people interacting so strongly with each other (staff or otherwise), there was a general atmosphere of comradery that only comes from them doing this year after year. These folks have only known me for a grand total of 71/2 days spread out over 3 years. Though I guess it’s really my fault. This lousy asperger’s syndrome of mine makes it more difficult for me to engage in basic social exercises and the usual result is people thinking I’m a little off. So really, it’s my own damn fault, not everyone else’s, that I don’t feel like I belong. A few folks showed some concern, but since they don’t know me that well it’s not their fault for not knowing that when I utter the words “nothing” or “fine”, I’m anything but. Expecting that of strangers is again my failing.

All my nagging and bemoaning aside, I’d do this trip again in a heartbeat. The scenery and landscape alone is worth it. Not only that, but it’s such a great opportunity to go look for fossils with the actual scientists. Great lot they are, from the sagely aura of Dave to the soft spoken wisdom of Xiaoming to the regular guy feel of Gary to even the charmingly thick accent of that one woman (oh man, I’m probably gonna die for that last one).  And since I want to collect fossils here someday for my museum, it’s probably great that I’m getting familiar with the place. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to do it next year. The museum will be having its centennial next year and as part of that they are hosting the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s the same time as when the Red Rock Canyon trip takes place. Naturally, SVP has priority. So I’ll have to go two years before I can again answer the siren call of the Mojave Desert and it’s ancient secrets. At least they were nice enough to give us all a good run this weekend before the looming dry spell.

From left to right: Aisling Farrell, Dave Whistler, Gary Takeuchi, Matt the Guy, and Guillermo(?)

Till next time!

1 thought on “Red Rock Canyon 2012

  1. Doug, thanks for sharing your palentological exploits! Robyn Hawk turned me on to your Blog, with the mention that you might like to collect in the Panoche Hills. That’s our stomping grounds, though we’re gem rock miners, and don’t usually dig for fossils, in the paleoscience sense.
    The BLM areas in the Panoche’s are mostly islands in private property, and under supervision as far as vertabrate fossils go. For info on possible access, your best bet is contacting the Hollister District BLM office.
    However, you’re welcome to join our field trip website at We have geo-enthusiasts of all persuasions there, and membership is free!
    We take monthly rockhound field trips into the Panoche’s, and would love to have you along when you have time.

    Keep digging, Doug!

    Kris Rowe
    Hand-2-Mouth Mining (
    Rockhound Field Trip Fanatics! (

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