Searching Paleontological Hotspots

Hey there every peoples.

My last post seemed like a total non starter. I knew it would be insignificant, but damn, did it seem to go unnoticed, even by this blog’s standards. But still, whether I had a billion dollars or just a few thousand, where would my museum go? I have talked about all kinds of places on “The Hit List”. These are extremely numerous and probably unfeasible to try and tackle in my lifetime (of course assuming I even make it far enough to start building a collection). So I have decided to place priority on some select localities I have dubbed “Paleontology Hot Spots”. These are places that boast a long and continuous fossil history. Instead of just a few million years of most geologic formations, these “hotspots” have multiple sequences of formations that really detail the changes in life and environment through time. I have selected 4 that I’d like my museum to focus on should it ever take off.

Continue reading


The Book Route?

Hey there every peoples!

I keep going on and on about this museum project of mine, but what exactly is the purpose of it all? Well the reason i use the most is to create a home for Central Coast fossils. But the Central Coast is really a spearhead for an even greater mission: to give a platform to the fossils who don’t seem to get much exposure

Continue reading

Narrowing the Focus

Hey there every peoples!

You may or may not remember my post about all the places I’d love to look for fossils. Unfortunately, that would be too difficult. Even if i got enough people together to start going into the field, we can’t be everywhere at once. Andy advised that i instead focus on just a few places. Plus you are never guaranteed to find something, so focusing efforts on just a few places increases your odds. So i have begun formulating a plan on how our field activity may pan out once we can get started. It’s not pretty and will need some tweaking, but it’s a start.

Phase 1: Central Coast

The first step would be to search for and recover fossils on the Central Coast (as doing such is the founding ideal of the museum). It would also be more feasible for a fledgling museum, as we’d only have to drive a few hours south, as opposed to traveling off to another state. Plus the fossils wouldn’t be too big; you don’t want to just dive into a dinosaur and be left hanging because you don’t know how to work with large fossils (following Alton’s advice of starting small).

Sespe formation– A late Eocene through mid Oligocene rock unit residing in the Los Posas hills of Ventura County. As i noted in an earlier post, i can’t help but feel as if the Sespe is tapped out. I know it’s a silly feeling but that’s what depression can do you you. Even if there are still fossils to be found, i fear there may not be too many places left to look, either being on private land or, knowing southern California, have been built over.

(Alternative: if no luck is to be had in the Sespe, than the John Day formation of Oregon would be a good substitute. The fauna there is quite similar to the animals of the Oligocene member of the Sespe (the few i have seen referenced so far). It would also serve my goal of telling the stories of under represented fossils. Of course it would be more difficult to start prospecting in Oregon than in California)

Caliente formation- This unit stretches through San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties but most specimens i have found in the literature seem to come from Ventura. Nonetheless, the Caliente formation preserves mammals ranging from the late Hemingfordian to the late Clerendonian. Again i can’t help but feel like it has been picked over. You would think this unease would be put to rest by a paper in 1993 describing  a mess of new camel species from the Caliente, but it doesn’t since the paper does not state when the fossils were found. Near as i can tell, the most major work done in the Caliente was in the mid 1960s when a guy from Berkeley found something like 4500 specimens.

(Alternative: If no luck is to be had in the Caliente, the Mascal formation of Oregon is a good back up. Like the Sespe/John Day, the animals of the Mascal are similar in age and composition to the faunas of the Caliente. It would also serve my goal of telling the stories of under represented fossils. Of course it would be more difficult to start prospecting in Oregon than in California)

Monterey formation– An expanse of shale and diatomacious earth stretching through San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Fossils of fish and algae abound but fossils of whales, dolphins, sharks, and birds are also known.

Pismo formation– Of all the local fossil layers to fret over, this is probably the most legitimate. The main exposure of the Pismo formation lies along Port San Luis Road out in Avila Beach. Based on what i can see driving to the wharf, there’s not a lot of area to search, so it could be very easy to exhaust (that is if it haven’t haven’t already). Lawrence Barnes once said that the Pismo formation was a bonebed on par with such sites such as Sharktooth Hill, Dinosaur National Monument, and the La Brea Tar Pits. Not sure about that, but he is an expert on fossil marine mammals, so there’s a good chance he’s right.

(Alternative- If Avila is a bust, then maybe we could go search the Purisima formation up near Santa Cruz. Some fossils i have seen are from the same time as the Pismo formation, and a couple animals are very similar. It’s a possibility, but i don’t know if Bobby would like other folks moving in on his turf)

Phase 2– Once we have spent a few years sharpening our claws here on the Central Coast, i was thinking we could start branching out to other parts of California, particularly in neighboring counties. We would still make smaller excursions to Central Coast localities; hell they may still make up a significant amount of our field activity, depending upon our success in going further afield.

Sharktooth Hill- A rich marine bonebed outside of Bakersfield. I hope to one day have a large scale exhibit of marine mammals. Also i feel like i need to make up for the Buena Vista Museum debacle. A lot of important specimens were lost. Andy informs me that most of the bonebed is on private land and that access could be difficult to obtain, “But, surely someone must be able to!”

Red Rock Canyon– Red Rock Canyon lies in the Mojave Desert of eastern Kern County. It is home to the Ricardo formation, a well known Clarendonian to Hemphilian layer. May be difficult to get permits, since only established institutions can apparently get access. Plus the LA Museum does work out there so we’d be in competition.

Panoche Hills– Some of the only Mesozoic rocks in California to bear fossil vertebrates. The Panoche Hills harbor the Moreno formation which dates to about 75 million years ago. Mosasaurs, long-necked plesiosaurs, and turtles have all been found here. Why search the Moreno formation? Well i can’t see it as too much of a stretch that these animals also lived on the Central Coast (a couple plesiosaur fossils are known from SLO County, but they are Jurassic in age). Also, most musuems have marine reptile fossils from Kansas. These are from right here in California. Once again we have the picked over mentality going on with me. Lastly he LA Museum will be displaying some of these marine reptiles in their new dinosaur hall.

Phase 3After a while [or sooner, depending on how well funded and equipped (both mentally and physically) we are] we will go deep into the American West to search for dinosaurs. I know i want to create another venue for fossil mammals, but that doesn’t mean i should rob people of dinosaurs. Today there are really only four good size to large scale dinosaur exhibits on the west coast: San Diego Museum of Natural History, San Diego, CA; Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology, Claremont, CA; Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA; and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Seattle, Washington. We could use some more dinosaurs over. And keeping in step with my philosophy, my dinosaurs will be off the beaten path (so to speak).

Morrison formation- I know, i know. *channels Douchey McNitpick* “But Doug, every museum has Jurassic dinosaurs, you paleo-plagiarist!” But remember, fossil recovery is part of my museum’s mission. A few years ago i read in an article that a Utah state geologist said there were around 25 Jurassic sites that needed to be excavated. I don’t know if that is still the case, but if so, that could give us a ready supply of Jurassic fossils. Plus my favorite dinosaur, Allosaurus, is from the Morrison formation.

Two Medicine formation The Hell Creek formation sits alongside the Morrison formation the dinosaur beds that most people focus on. I want to look in the Two Medicine formation of Montana for the dinosaurs that came before. Plus some cool horned dinosaurs are known from the Two Medicine formation, namely Einiosaurus (with it’s huge can opener of a horn) and Achelousaurus (who has no facial horns at all, but roughened patches of bone). Plus the Two Medicine formation plays into a concept that dictates where my final choice for dinosaurs is.

Kirtland formation– Lastly but not least, i want to look for dinosaurs in the Kirtland formation of northeastern New Mexico. Oddly, the picked over mentality doesn’t factor in here in regards to the fossils found. I suspect that it’s just a matter of not enough work being done in the Kirtland formation. More importantly though, i want to search the Kirtland because i have been interested in the idea of dinosaur provincialism. Some of the dinosaurs in the Kirtland have cloudy identities, which i hope to rectify. The Kirtland collection could be combined with the Two Medicine collection to create a side by side comparison of dinosaurs from the north with the dinosaurs of the south. Who knows what could be deciphered.

Some possibilities- These are a couple places that i would love to search, but are likely never to happen. I can dream, but if i get my museum going, i don’t think these will be searched in my lifetime…

Goler formation- the Goler formation is a smattering of Paleocene outcrops in Kern County. It represents the only Paleocene fauna on the West Coast. The Ray Alf Museum has been doing work in the Goler for the last several years and will have a display about it in their renovated Hall of Life. Andy informed me that the outcrops are few and that specimens have proven sparse. Maybe some day in the future, when no one has worked it save for mother nature, maybe we can go out and find some stuff. But in the mean time, Andy said we could trade them casts of Sespe material for casts of Goler material (assuming we find anything in the Sespe).

El Gallo formation– Like i said above, i have become interested in dinosaur provincialism. So far all the fossils pertaining to such come from the east side of what was once the “lost continent” of Laramidia. This is due mainly to the lack of dinosaur bearing strata on the west coast (probably because of all the Cenozoic era volcanism and geologic instability). However one fauna is somewhat known: dinosaurs of the El Gallo formation in Baja California. I talked about them a while back and their place in the scheme of dinosaur provincialism is intriguing. I once mentioned them on Scott Sampson’s blog, and he said “Time to make some more discoveries!”. I would love to make them (they would go great with the provincialism collection i hope to establish) but i don’t know if we could. The book “Dinosaurs and other Mesozoic Reptiles of California” notes that the terrain is very difficult to extract large fossils from. The book also made note of some political tension, in the form of the LA Museum having to return many of the fossils they collected to Mexico. I don’t know if they would let some gringos go poking around for dinosaurs. Again, i’d love to do it but i just can’t tell right now.

(I guess not all was returned, as the LA Museum will have some of these fossils on display in their new dinosaur hall)

So there you have it. It may sound like a lot, but it is a watered down version of my initial list. Further more, depending where we are able to get permits and how much money we can raise, this list will likely get really short if my plans come to fruition. I try to think positively, but such a venture as starting a museum weighs terribly on my mind and little by little the doubts creep in. People are always wishing me luck and i appreciate the sentiment but it’s obvious that it’ll take more than luck to pull this off. Even if i can throw together a pitch to the public and even if i can get some people together to start getting things going, i’l may very well be moving away in a year! I desperately cling to what little faith i have in people, but that faith is rarely rewarded. I need the help of others to make it work, to ply these wonderful stretches of the earth’s surface. Maybe someday i’ll get it…

Till next time!

Central Coast Critters: Gomphotherium

Hey there every peoples!

What do you say we follow up my last post with something a little more positive, eh?

Paleontology is full of familiar faces. Dinosaurs have what I call the “Main Four”: Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus (formerly Brontosaurus), and Triceratops. I call them such because they are the four most recognized and well known dinosaurs to the world. And there are still a few very well known dinosaurs, like Allosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Velociraptor, and Brachiosaurus. Mammals have a few too, namely the woolly mammoth, the saber-tooth cat, and the cave bear. But to paleontologists there are many more animals with which they easily recognize and are very familiar with. One such animal is Gomphotherium.

Skeleton of Gomphotherium at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (from flickr user LLudo)

Gomphotherium has been known to the paleontological community for over 170 years and has been found in Europe, Asia, and North America. It is perhaps the best known of the shovel-tuskers, an extinct but diverse group who added many branches to the proboscidean family tree (Proboscideans are elephants and their extinct relatives). Gomphotherium evolved in the proboscidean homeland of Africa and then spread throughout the world. It first entered North America 15 million years ago where it ranged from California and Oregon to Florida and Maryland.

Gomphotherium’s long lower jaw has puzzled scientists since the first one was found. What was it used for? How did a trunk fit over it? Originally it was thought that such jaws were used to dig up roots. Other interpretations said that the jaw was used to dredge water plants. Still some others think it was for stripping bark from trees. For all we know, it could have been all three. Modern elephants use their tusks for a variety of purposes. One population in Africa actually goes into underground caves and mines for salt, using their tusks as picks. The shovel-tusker jaw may have been a Swiss army knife, useful for a variety of purposes depending on the situation. And as for the trunk? That’s a little harder to pin down. Soft tissue is very rarely fossilized. But by looking at the bones of the skull we might be able to get an idea. Considering that this animal was a browser and likely doing all kinds of scooping type actions with its jaw, a long trunk is unlikely as it could have gotten in the way.

fleshed-out reconstruction of Gomphotherium (from the book Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids)

And as luck would have it, this marvelous beast roamed the Central Coast. It is known from at least the middle Miocene Caliente formation, which is 14 to 12 million years old. According to a few entries in UCMP’s online collections database, a dentary (lower jaw), astragalus (ankle bone), and a partial humerous (upper armbone) are know from the Caliente. I don’t know if there are more specimens from this formation or others, but the few above are good enough for me. As with many Central Coast fossils, they are hidden away in UCMP’s vast collections. I would love to be able to secure them for our museum so that they may help tell the story of the Central Coast, but Berkeley is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Why would they let go (even if it’s a simple loan) some of their legendary collections for a little guy like me? I had written a few letters to them in years past about some ice age fossils on behalf of a couple local museums. They never wrote back. Besides, you don’t get to brag that you have the largest fossil collection of any university in the world by loaning or selling or donating any of your specimens.

Jaw of Gomphotherium from the Mascal formation of Oregon

Sorry for the tangent. There are some complex feelings stirring there. But I hope I have illuminated a little more of the blogosphere by talking about another home of one of the most familiar faces in paleontology. Gomphotherium, I salute thee!

Till next time!