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.

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Central Coast Critters: Emma

Hey there every peoples!

My math class is really keeping me on the ropes. But today class was canceled so i have found the time to write a post that i have been meaning to write for a very, very long time. This edition of Central Coast critters goes out to a very special gal. She is of of the biggest stars of the Central Coast you’ve never heard of. And she played a pivitol role in my quest to become a paleontologist.

It all begins in 2005. A new housing development called Merridian Hills was being built in the town of Moorpark, Ventura County. As is standard practice by California law, a paleontologist and/or archaeologist was required to monitor the site. As bulldozers and earth graders leveled the site, something caught the monitoring paleontologist’s eye. He spotted a couple patches of white and gray in the mud brown dirt in the wake of a bulldozer. He examined them and realized they were fossil bone! He marks the fossils, all 3 of them, with orange flags so the heavy equipment operators know to stay away from that spot. As he began to dig, he couldn’t believe what was turning up: the fossils turned out to be the skull, tusk, and neck vertebra of a mammoth! While the dozer had taken away 1/3 of the skull, 6 inches of tusk, and half the neck (literally half the neck. All seven vertebra were there, but each was cut in half), the fossils were still very complete! But then more of the fossil began to surface: vertebra, ribs, leg bones, arm bones, and even little toe bones. Bones of other animals were turning up as well. The paleontologist knew this was a much bigger task than he could handle. He contacted the Natural History Museum in LA for help. They weren’t interested, saying it was probably just another Colombian mammoth. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

While the paleontologist was trying to find people to help excavate a whole mammoth skeleton, he examined one of the teeth. It was a typical mammoth tooth, with the cemented ridges of enamel designed to chew grass. But something wasn’t right. In addition to the ridges, there were several bumps mixed in. And then the paleontologist realized this wasn’t a columbian mammoth. It was an older and much rarer American beast: a southern mammoth!

Excavation of the "Moorpark Mammoth"

The paleontologist managed to find a small freelance fossil company to help dig the specimen out. After she was out of the ground she was put into storage. The company had dome some prep work and microfossil screening, but little else. It seemed that this magnificent fossil was doomed to spend her days in obscurity in some random Moorpark facility. But then in 2007, two years after her great bones were pried from the earth, a miracle happened. The city board, who had come to nickname the fossil Emma, voted to donate the specimens to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. The museum excepted, and against the odds Emma was given a second chance.

I had actually stumbled upon Emma by accident. In December 2007 i was visiting the museum and, as usual, drooling over the fossils in the paleontology hall. I noticed a couple display new and empty display cases. Then a few men, one of whom i recognized as Paul Collins (curator of vertebrate zoology), wheeled in a cart loaded with fossils. There was an articulated hand, an articulated lower back leg, a vertebra, and a mammoth’s characteristic molar. I made some brief chat with the museum staff wherein they explained that these fossils were found in Moorpark in 2005 and had recently been acquired by the museum. He also explained they were going to have a prep lab that summer to prepare the bones. And what do you think happened? I volunteered that summer and spent one day a week prepping not just any fossil, but a very unique one.

Boy do i look dorky!

No i didn’t dress like that every time! But overall i spent a total of 55 hours pepping a mammoth that summer. And it felt fantastic! Long before i had the tools to combat my depression, this gig gave me such a boost in confidence, self-esteem, and self worth. I was proud to tell people what i was doing. I felt like i was actually contributing to the paleontological community as well as help my favorite museum. I was even quoted in a Ventura newspaper as saying “You wait your whole life for an opportunity like this”. But all good things must end, and at summer’s end the prep lab was closed up. I tried to continue doing volunteer prep work, but Paul said they had a guy coming in once a week to do that. And ever since then, i have been trying to experience the high i had that summer. But i have failed for the most part. The sense of pride, achievement, joy, fulfillment… I was exercising my passion, living it, doing what i waited my whole life to do. All efforts to get back in the game from then on failed, only fueling the despair and darkness that plagued my being. I remembered fondly that summer and the work i did, only then weep for what i had lost.I’m better now, but my efforts to get into the paleontological community have been fleeting at best.

But back to the heart of the matter: why is Emma such a big deal? Well for starters, she’s a southern mammoth. The southern mammoth (Mammuthus meridionalis) is well known from Eurasia but is much rarer in North America. The southern mammoth is presumed to have been the first mammoth in North America, crossing over from Asia about 1.5 million years ago. I don’t know of many southern mammoth fossils found in North America, but oddly enough the ones i do know all come California. Southern mammoth fossils have been found in Victorville, Anza Borrego State Park, and Moorpark. Plus Emma has the potential to be the most complete southern mammoth in North America. The current record holder is a specimen held in the Smithsonian; a large female discovered in Anza Borrego in the 1970s, is about 70% complete. Emma could be a contender, but until an official bone count is done, we won’t know for sure.

The skull of Emma

Emma's feet and hind limb bones in a big fossil log jam!

Emma is also significant for her age. Based on an index fossil known as Meade’s Pine Mouse, the site was dated to around 750,000 years ago. A lot of fossil sites in California, especially on the coast, tend to be late Pleistocene, 40,000 to 10,000 years old. Emma’s site is from the middle Pleistocene, a less well understood time period. But the mice weren’t the only fossils found there. Fossils of the Western Horse (Equus occidentalis, though since i don’t know what was found i don’t know how concrete the identification is), llama, and mastodon (a pair of mastodon tusks were found across the road from the construction site, but i don’t know if they are from the same layer). This fossil assemblage is important because it’s another piece of the puzzle of life in the middle Pleistocene. The age of the site is roughly the same as the Fairmead Landfill, so we can make a comparison and perhaps better understand Emma’s site.

Finally, Emma is important because of where she is from. The Central Coast, as i try to show through this blog, has a surprising rich fossil history. And i have all too much lamented, much of that amazing history is locked up, out of sight, out of reach, in museum to the north and south of the Central Coast. But that such a valuable and spectacular specimen remained on the Central Coast, in a place where she will be appreciated and treasured, is a great victory indeed. Emma has come a long way as it is, to be stuffed into the echoing vaults of a larger museum would be tragic. Like most other fossils on the Central Coast, her story should be told and shared with the world. If only more fossils from the Central Coast (like the fossilized whale brains or Avila’s giant sea cow) were as lucky as Emma.

Someday, when the museum has the space, she will become the centerpiece of a revamped paleontology hall. Over the years i have sent them various ideas for such a hall. They said they appreciated them and would keep them in mind. I think i hinted in an earlier post that perhaps instead of trying to start my own museum i should help an existing one. Well I can think of no one better than the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. They already deal in all things Central Coast. Plus, they don’t have a paleontology curator; their small fossil collection is looked after by Paul Collins, who you can imagine is more interested in modern faunas. I recently tried to get a BLM permit to search the Caliente formation for fossils. The museum director appreciated the offer, but turned me down because they have neither the curator nor the storage space to accommodate what could be a new stream of fossils. I have always thought that if i were ever lucky enough to join up with SBMNH that the main museum could display Central Coast fossils while an offsite facility (like the Sea Center) could deal with the stuff from further abroad. It’s an unrealistic thought, much like the Grand Vision. But hey, if a rare fossil can be uncovered by a bulldozer and then remain in it’s homeland, then why can’t i join up with a kickass Central Coast museum and help them share the wonders of the ancient world with our moern one.

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.

Central Coast Critters: Amynodontopsis

Hey there every peoples!

My mind has a weird way of working. It jumps around to all kinds of random things. It can pull something out of nowhere, even if the most irrelevant thing with no relation brought it out. While grappling with my depression, i realized something about my little cyber rag here. I have introduced you guys to fossil animals from the Pismo, Caliente, and Monterey formations and also the tar pits. But i haven’t shown you guys an animal from the Sespe formation. So let’s fix that.

The Sespe formation is found in Ventura County around Ventura, Simi, Santa Paula, and even Ojai. Two fossil faunas are known, each from different time periods. The lower Sepse preserves animals from the middle Eocene epoch, around 42 mya. The upper Sespe preserves a fauna from the late Oligocene epoch, 29-28 mya. Our guest today hails from the older member, a time when this part of California was warm and humid (probably home to a sub-tropical forest) and about 200 miles south. He shared his world with primitive carnivores, primates, rhino-like brontotheres, extinct ungulates, turtles, snakes, and crocodiles. He is Amynodontopsis bodei.

Amynodontopsis bodei was named for a skull found in the Sespe by Chester Stock, a paleontologist from the California Institute of Technology who is perhaps most famous for his work on the fauna of the La Brea Tar Pits. Like most of my information on animals from the Sespe, all i have to go on is the stuff Chester published back in the 1930s.

Right view of the skull of Amynodontopsis bodei

What little i have been able to gather is this: Amynodontopsis is related to Amynodon more than other amynodonts. It’s skull is unusually narrow and looks a bit like a giant tapir skull but the teeth say he was all rhino. The rest of the article is just technical jargon too complicated for my patheitc brain to make heads or tails of. But, i hope i have shed a little more light on another denizen of the Central Coast.

Till next Time!

Some Further Thoughts on Arctodus

Hey there every peoples!

As you may remember from a little while ago i didn’t have the best outlook on everyone’s favorite ice age bruin Arctodus. The loss of what may have been one of the most fascinating carnivores of the Pleistocene is probably easier to bear (no pun intended) than i made it out to be. i have tried to make it clear that i have a mental illness that severely affects my outlook and disposition. However, looking back  i now realize that Arctodus may be down, but he  may not be out just yet.

A jawbone of Arctodus from Labor of Love Cave, Nevada

I talked about Arctodus being shrunk down from the giant it is often portrayed as. Well being the numb-nuts that i am, i had forgotten that the paper that stripped Arctodus of most of it’s unique characteristics actually argues that Arctodus may have been bigger than what some have argued:

According to our estimates,
the heaviest specimens of A. simus are UVP 015 from Utah and F:AM 25535 from Nebraska, with body masses calculated as ca. 957 and 863 kg, respectively (Table 3). In contrast, the smallest
specimens are LACM 122434 from Rancho La Brea and UM25611 from Kansas, with figures of ca. 317 and 388 kg, respectively (Table 3). The fact that one third of the specimens analyzed approached a ton suggests that individuals of this size were more common than previously suspected.

They go on to mention that the largest specimens come from colder climates (at least back then). This is consistent with what is observed in other mammals, in that cold climates favor larger body size. Also Arctodus appears to exhibit sexual dimorphism like modern bears, meaning that smaller specimens are most likely females. Another interesting note about the size of Arctodus comes from Riverbluff Cave in Missouri. Preserved on the walls of the cave are many parallel gouges consistent with claw marks. Based on the size and spacing of the marks they are thought to have been made by Arctodus. Another they think it’s Arctodus is that these claw marks are 12 feet up the cave wall! Finally, Eric Scott of the San Bernardino County Museum has offered to help quell my doubts by showing me an Arctodus astragalus from Murrieta and comparing it with other bears. There’s a field trip in May so I’ll try to to it then (Thanks Eric!).

And as for meat consumption… Well, the isotope analysis was performed on specimens from Alaska and hence can’t be used to generalize the species. But just like we can’t generalize from a few specimens, can we really generalize based on one paper? They have put forward the argument that Arctodus was an omnivore, but it should not be accepted as gospel truth. People argued for Arctodus being herbivorous based on anatomy, and look what happened: specimens were found that demonstrated a diet almost entirely of meat. It’s clear that Arctodus’ diet is a bit more complicated. Who knows, maybe Arctodus was an omnivore but was more carnivorous than modern bears (like, say, 30% meat 70% plants, or maybe 40%/60%). Arctodus being a primarily vegetarian animal like modern bears raises a question: if it was a generalist, why did it die out? Surely it could have adapted like it’s grizzly cousins. One of the reasons the scavenging hypothesis made sense to me was it could at least in part explain why Arctodus died out: If all the large animals that Arctodus relied on for carrion died out, then it too would die out from lack of food. Just an observation.

In short, we still have much to learn about this animal. The dearth of fossils discovered so far should make it obvious that this bear isn’t giving up it’s secrets easily. To give you an idea of how rare it’s fossils are, consider diamond Valley. Tens of thousands of fossils were found there during construction of a reservoir. Now predators make up as small part of the ecosystem, so they are less likely to be fossilized. But still, paleontologists in Diamond Valley found: a saber-toothed cat mandible and foot bone, a vertebra and pelvis of the American lion, and a cranium fragment, a foot bone, and tooth fragments of a dire wolf. What did they find of Arctodus? A single incisor! Of all the fossils found, the mighty Arctodus is represented by a single front tooth. Even in a predator trap like the La Brea Tar Pits, it’s a rare beats. Compare 30 bears to 3200 dire wolves, 2000 saber-toothed cats, and over 120 American lions. Not a whole lot to go on. I think we need to try and get a better idea of this bear’s biomechanics: how strong was it’s bite, how did move, how did its limbs function? Also i think we need to try and do isotope studies on fossils besides one found in the north. Perhaps diet may also explain why larger specimens are found in places like Utah and Nebraska. But we won’t know for sure until we focus on trying to figure this animal out rather than trying to bust popular myths.

Incisor of Arctodus from Diamond Valley, California

Till next time!