Aftermath of SVP

Hey there every peoples!

Last week was the first (and probably only, until i either land a job or get funding) time i was able to attend SVP, the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. It was fun, it was informative, it was exhausting! I saw some great talks, some great posters, and some not so great examples of either. Saw all the familiar faces, met some new ones, and got loads of advice and swag. It was a fantastic experience. It has left me a bit drained but not just physically. The conference has brought up a couple issues that no doubt stick in the Society’s craw.

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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.

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Finally, hunting for some vertebrates!

Hey there every peoples!

Summer has come and gone. And now i have been plunged head first into what is probably going to be my most hellish nightmare inducing semester yet. Spanish might be manageable, but on top of that i have chemistry (which i was never good at, being one of the physical sciences) and geometry/trigonometry (it’s a combined class, but since math has always been my greatest weakness it’s going to be much much worse). I have a five and a half hour break on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so hopefully i can still deliver a blog post now and then.

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Frustration and Disappointment in Kern County

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!

Fieldwork at Last!

Hey there every peoples!

I have been so busy lately that i haven’t done a proper post in quite a while. I wanted to get one in before i shove off to Utah for a couple weeks. And i have the perfect subject to do it: fieldwork!

Ok I’m over blowing it a bit. I merely tagged along. Charles Powel,II of the US Geological Survey was searching for fossil invertebrates on the eastern side of Carrizo Plain National Monument. He was nice enough to invite me along and help him look for stuff to use in his research.

Chuck himself, showing one of the many uses for an ice axe

The fossils we were looking for were mostly molluscs who lived and died at the bottom of a shallow bay. Chuck was out to collect fossils to compare to a similar set found north in the Salinas Valley. The fossils from the Salinas Valley are from the west side of the San Andreas Fault while the fossils from the Carrizo Plain are on the east side of the fault. Chuck and a coleague hope that they can shed light on the movement of the San Andreas Fault.

I learned a lot from this little foray. I learned that invertebrate paleontology can be just as difficult as for vertebrates. For example, at the first locality we checked out, i walked right past a cache of fossils.

Believe it or not, those are fossils!

You have to know what to look for. Preservation at these localities sucks. What happened was water leeched through the sediment and dissolved the fossilized shells of marine invertebrates, leaving behind molds of said shells. But even then, bits of shell could still be found:

The partial shell of a Forerria, a chonch-like mollusc

Partial shell of Astrodapsis, an extinct sand dollar

A barnacle i found (top) compared with one sticking out of the hillside (bottom)

A largely complete clam shell. This was the best one we found at the site.

Afterwards we headed over to Panorama Point. While we found a big outcrop, preservation here was even worse. No shell was to be found, only molds.  However, they were still useful as long as they retained the full shape. We found lots of clams, a couple burrows, and i managed to find a nice razor clam mold:

A nice part and counterpart mold of a razor clam

There was a third locality Chuck wanted to search, but we couldn’t find it. His map was over 30 years old and the last time fossils were collected at the site was in the 1930’s. There was a road that was supposed to take us to the site but it was nowhere to be found (that’s the main reason for our trouble). We trekked around a little bit but rather than get lost we decided to wrap it up.

People would think that looking for fossil invertebrates is easy and nothing to get excited about. Well as i just demostrated above it’s just as hard to find complete invertebrates as it is for vertebrates. For example, look at this beautiful Pecton on display at the Los Angeles Museum:

How many shell fragments did the paleontologist have to sift through before he found this fine specimen?

Invertebrates may not be as exciting or as impressive as the large vertebrates that dominate museum displays, but they are just as important. They can inform us about ancient climates, geologic movements, and other things (a display at the San Diego Natural History Museum discussed how marine invertebrates could be used to map the extent of San Diego’s Pliocene bay). But does this mean we should forsake the vertebrates? No! Vertebrates (big and small), invertebrates, plants… these are all records of past life. The all have something to say. They are all pieces of the same puzzle: pontificating on which is more exciting (ie “Yeah we have found dinosaurs in the Denver formation. Big deal. This is the real exciting stuff”- Kirk Johnson, in regards to fossil plants)  or more important or who is overrated will not help us complete the picture. To put the puzzle together, we need all the pieces, big and small.

While they were small, incomplete fossils of invertebrates, i no less got that thrill of discovery in finding them. I have spent so many years dreaming of one day going out into the field and looking for the fossils that have occupied my mind my whole life. And now i have finally realized that dream. It was only for a few hours, but the rush was there. Hopefully this is the launching point for more field work to come (it even spawned a new catagory, one that may not see an update for quite some time).

Till next time!