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 The book was written in 2003, so the directions may have just been out of date.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