CCC: Rise of the Bear Dogs

Hey there every peoples!

How long has it been since I talked about just Central Coast fossils? Yeah, way too long. So now that i have finally gotten around to it, which one should I do? While I’m not one to let others influence my thought process, the idea for this one came from the geology field course i took this semester.

It was mainly geology, with the only fossils being Cambrian trilobites and Precambrian stromatolites and trace fossils, so there wasn’t too much to really sink my teeth into. But because Grover (my geology teacher) is such a nice guy, he did allow me to briefly bloviate about fossils at some of the stops. These were Rainbow Basin in Barstow, Titus Canyon in Death Valley, and Red Rock Canyon State Park in…. Red Rock Canyon. First up was Rainbow Basin. When Grover handed the speaking over to me, he asked “So Doug, what kinds of animals used to live out here?” I decided to start with arguably the most unusual and charismatic beast of the Barstow fauna. I simply said “bear dogs”. Suddenly everyone was amazed and enthralled. For the rest of the trip, everyone was asking about bear dogs at the other fossil stops I discussed. Everyone kept saying bear dog in the vein of “awesome!” Apparently the other van was googling Bbear dog on their phones as we left Rainbow Basin. One girl said we should change our school mascot from the cougar to the bear dog (Cuesta College, the fighting Bear Dogs!). Grover even took it upon himself to give me a nickname: Bear Dog Doug. And then another girl who shall remain nameless *coughStacycough* made an adjustment to it which Grover must never know about. And at the end of the semester meeting i brought many of my fossil replicas (and a few real ones), with the specimens being relevant to the faunas i talked about on the trip. And everyone was bummed when they found out I didn’t have any bear dog material. Of course if there was a place for Central Coast fossils this wouldn’t have happened. But anyway, this interest and banter about bear dogs influenced my decision to make the newest installment of “Central Coast Critters” about these awesomely named beasties.

So just what are bear dogs? The name can certainly fire the imagination to conjure up all kinds of bear/dog hybrids. The name stems from early researchers who thought them to be ancestral to dogs and bears, due to them having features seen in both. Later they were assigned closer to bears. The latest taxonomic review suggests they may be basal caniforms (related to dogs and bears, as well as the four other groups placed in caniformia). Bear dogs first appeared in North America in the early Oligocene. From there they diversified and formed a significant part of the Oligocene carnivore guild. They tapered out a bit at the end of the Oligocene and into the Miocene. One or two genera then roamed the continent until the group died out in North America at the end of the Miocene. Their fossils are well known from the Midwest, but they have been found at a number of localities on the West Coast as well. This includes a couple from the Central Coast.

Maxilla or upper jaw of Pliocyon from the middle Miocene of Oregon. At The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, OR

Our earliest member of the bear dog clan is a little guy called Temnocyon. Temnocyon comes from the Oligocene deposits of the Sespe formation in Ventura County. This means he was prowling the open forests of the Central Coast 29 million years ago. It was the size of a large coyote and may have made a living hunting the numerous species of oreodonts that shared it’s world. But there may have been another bear dog trying to hog the spotlight. In the same faunal list* i learned about Temnocyon in also mentioned a critter called Pseudocynodictis. I haven’t been able to find anything on this guy, so whether or not it’s a valid genus is unknown. It may not even be a solid id at the Central Coast locality, as the list has a question mark at the end of it’s name. Whether it was here or not, we had at least one yesitwasreallythereyeahit’strue bear dog. But as we move into another time and place, we will come face to face with the poster child for the bear dog lineage, an animal who pretty much comes to mind first when the name bear dog is uttered.

*From one of Chester Stocks many papers on the Sespe faunas. They have proven an invaluable resource since he published and everything he found and MOST of them are freely available online. Of course the one drawback is that they were written in the 1930s. That’s a mighty long time for changes to be made in paleontology. Whether any additions have been made to the Sespe fauna (aside from some microfossil mitigation at Simi Valley landfill) i don’t know. It’s yet another case of no information being available and why i write this blog and want to start a museum.

Skull of Temnocyon from the John Day Beds in Oregon. From Cope, 1883

To find our next bear dog we must travel north to the Cuyama Valley and fast forward about 15 million years. The strata known as the Caliente formation spans an incredible length of time, almost 20 million years! In the middle of it, during the Barstovian NALMA, we encounter the big bad daddy of the bear dogs: Amphicyon! Amphicyon is perhaps one of the best known of the bear dogs, known from numerous specimens across North America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. There are many species known, ranging in size from a Rottweiler to a grizzly bear! Which one of these prowled the ancient wilds of the Cuyama Valley? We don’t know for certain. All i can find is a molar in Berkeley’s online database (there’s Caliente material at the LA Museum but they don’t have an online database). I wish i could rectify this but more on that later. Amphicyon is considered a top predator, ruling any and all ecosystems it inhabited. So what did this carnivore hunt? “Anything it wanted” would be the instinctual answer. The real answer is probably more akin to “depends on the environment”. For example Magericyon, a similar-sized species from Spain, is thought to have preyed on antelope and musk deer (apparently bones of the animals showings signs of digestion, are suspected of having been left behind by the bear dog). The Caliente formation has produced many similar-sized species of horses, camels, pronghorns, deer, and peccaries that may have met their end in the jaws of Amphicyon. Amphicyon represents the second officially discovered bear dog from the Central Coast. But i have a sneaking suspicion that a later species may have carried out the last of the clan in North America on the Central Coast as well.

Cast skeleton of Amphicyon mounted a fossil trackway thought to have been made by it. At the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology, Claremont, CA

About 100 miles east of Cuyama Valley is the much better known Red Rock Canyon. This fantastic locality records a stretch of time called the Clarendonian roughly 12 to 8 million years ago. While not as well known, the Clarendonian sections of the Caliente fm. have produced similar fossils. Now there is a bear dog known from Red Rock Canyon called Ischyrocyon. This genus is the last bear dog in North America. Maybe bear dogs just couldn’t handle the competition with cats, dogs, and bears anymore, hard to say. The Red Rock Canyon species is known as Ischyrocyon mojaviensis. Unfortunately, it isn’t very well known. So far all we have is a fragmentary skull and some forelimb bones. Now, no fossils of Ischyrocyon have been found in the Cuyama Valley. But given the relatively short distance between it and Red Rock Canyon as well as a similarity in their faunas, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t hanging around the valley as well.

Reconstructed skull of Ischyrocyon mojaviensis. No, that is not the canine, but a mere incisor. That’s how wicked this guys dentition was! At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, CA

You all know I would love nothing more than to rove the badlands of the Cuyama Valley to find more fossils of these bear dogs and their contemporaries. Oh to go out into the field and uncover new pieces to add to a known but poorly understood assemblage. So far the stuff locked up in Berkeley and LA are the only remains known. No one seems interested in looking to see if there is more to be found. I feel I could be doing science a favor as well as fleshing out the story of the Central Coast. Except everything and everyone says I can’t. Even if I had a curation facility, apparently I can’t look for fossils unless I have an expensive piece of paper. Once again, i get that education is important, but this insistence that a university is the only option is not conducive to my mental well being. You all remember how I lamented not being able to go through school and not being able to pursue my lifelong passion because of it. Why can’t I learn the necessary skills another way? Why do I need a diploma to tell people I know my stuff? Looking to trying to get experience, I tried applying for a field assistant position (summer internship) at the Museum of Western Colorado. Jim Kirkland linked to it on Facebook and said it was a tremendous opportunity. So I sent in a resume in. A month or so later I got the token rejection letter in the mail. It said something about “…and your education, skills, and qualifications were impressive;” Yeah, sure. After all, such an important position should go to someone who is actually competent, someone who has the diploma or is in the process of getting it, not some lame amateur.

You know, people keep telling me I’m smart. And, on occasion, I start to believe it. And then reality comes back, throws me to the floor, and scolds me for forgetting my place. I can’t search for fossils to further science and the Grand Vision. I apparently have no hope of securing a position that could help me learn to be a better paleontologist (Oh hell, I’m nowhere near anything of the sort). Private and commercial collectors are able to search for and collect fossils with only their own interests in mind. I want to serve the greater good, with sciences interests in mind, and yet I don’t get to look for fossils because I haven’t gone to a tedious and overpriced school. Often makes me wonder what the point is in pursuing paleontology. Judging from the  museum’s response (“We had an unprecedented number of qualified applicants this year…”), the world of paleontology has no need of me. There seems to be enough knowledgeable folks to fill in the limited job market that is paleontology that it can afford to bypass an obviously inferior acolyte such as myself.

So sorry for the tangent. Remember, passion can be a gift and a curse. But back to subject at hand. Bear dogs are pretty well known in the fossil record. But certain species could stand to be fleshed out.  Chief among them the members of the Central Coast chapter. We need to ply the Sespe and Caliente formations further. Not only would that strengthen their record in a regional sense, but also contribute to the greater scientific knowledge pool. I just hope I get to be a part of that.

Till next time!

2 thoughts on “CCC: Rise of the Bear Dogs

    • it’s not the university itself. It’s the insistence that the only path (and thus the one i have to follow) is the one that i am not able to pursue despite my best efforts. There’s more than one way to do something and ultimately there is more than one road to go down. But saying that there is only one despite the fact not everyone can go down it (and thus implying they are a failure) is not good encouragement for education IMHO.

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