Help Me Write a Book on California Fossils

Hey there every peoples!

I have a brief moment of respite between field excursions so I’ll make this quick.

For years I have been wanting to publish a book on California’s fossil vertebrates. I feel there has never been a comprehensive source bringing all the information on California’s incredible prehistory into one place. The Golden State was once home to beardogs and sabercats; giant camels and pygmy mammoths; three-toed horses and hippo-like marine mammals; ground sloths and giant “toothed” seabirds; and killer sperm whales and and shovel-jawed elephants. And yet there are barely any books on the subject at all. As far as I can tell, there are only a couple gift shop books on Rancho la Brea and the Anza Borrego book. Hardly representative of all that California’s paleontology has to offer.

So I am to fix that. But I need your help. My book will be heavy on pictures and illustrations because I want to show the reader the fossils and creatures themselves. To do this, I’m going to need a good camera, other photography equipment (lighting, background, etc), and a new laptop to write and edit photos on. In all this stuff will run about $3500. And the great thing is once I have this stuff I’ll be able to use it for future books and even for my scientific research. This one act of generosity will go a long way.

So please donate to my book writing fund. Any amount would help me to reach my goal. I would greatly appreciate any help you can provide. The fossil vertebrates of California have an incredible story to tell. With your donation, you can help tell it with me.

Till next time!

Into Jurassic World Part 3: Attack of the Fanboys

Hey there every peoples

Here we are. About to dig into the hideous, cancerous world of dinosaur fanboys  (and fangirls. They certainly exist, but I’m using fanboy as a shorthand. Plus most of the hate i have encountered has come from the male variety). There are no winners here. We all lose. Oh deep unabiding joy. Let’s get this over with.

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Central Coast Critters: Osteodontornis

Hey there everypeoples!

I had originally reserved this post for a very special gal, but given the recent buzz about the new species of Pelagornis I thought I’d give the slot to one of the more bizarre denizens of the Central Coast.

A long time in a quarry outside Santa Maria, workers found the skeleton of a strange creature. It looked like a bird, but was far bigger than any bird that plies the coast today. That and it looked like this thing had teeth! So the specimen was taken to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History where it can still be seen today. The creature was identified as a new type of sea bird by then curator of Anthropology Phil Orr (he also dabbled in paleontology). It was thus named Osteodontorniss orri, the giant “bone-toothed bird”.

Part (original fossil) of Osteondornis orri at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Counterpart (mirrior imprint of fossil) of Osteodonornis

This bird had a wingspan of 14 feet and would have stood over 3 feet tall. Given the size and shape of the wings, it is likely that Osteodontornis flew like a modern albatross, using long slender wings to soar over long distances in search of food. But being a bird it would still need to come to shore to roost and breed.  Osteodontornis would have picked off fish and squid that strayed too close to the surface. And that’s where the bird’s namesake comes in. The bird’s name derives from several tooth-like structures in the beak that would have proved very useful for snagging slippery prey. But these structures were actually bony extensions of the jawbone rather than true teeth. Nonetheless it probably made it look like dinosaurs had come back to life!

Osteodontornis may have been found here first but he has been found further afield. The bird appears to have occupied both sides of the North Pacific. Many fragmentary specimens have been found at Sharktooth Hill in Kern County. A couple fossils have been found across the ocean in Japan. Also an obscure bone was found on Vancouver Island. It is an abraded part of the tarsometatarsus found in what is thought to be the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. This would make it much older that Osteodontornis (indeed the bone has been given its own genus: Cyphornis). Many think the rocks in which the bone was found may actually be early Miocene in age, which would mean this could be an early species of Osteodontornis. But other pseudotooth bird bones from Oregon that date from the Eocene-Oligocene boundary are thought to possibly be from the same animal. This is possible, if the rocks in Vancouver are in fact that old. But being bird bones, they are hollow, thin walled, and very fragile. The few bits that do survive don’t offer much information on who is who.

Osteodontornis jaw fragments from Sharktooth Hill, Kern County

And this fragmentary nature makes it difficult to discern which bird group Osteodontornis and his kin are related to. While we are able to group pseudotooth birds together (Pelagornithidae), their broader relationships are harder to be certain of. At first they were grouped with the Pelecaniformes, which includes pelicans and gannets. But a later study found that they may be more closely related to waterfowl. The pseudotooth birds’ relationships to other birds may be difficult to ascertain since we have trouble just trying to figure out how many species and genera of pseudotooth birds there actually is. As noted above, their fossils are rarely preserved beyond partial bones.

All that aside Osteodontornis is the biggest seabird ever to call the Central Coast its home. It must have been even more spectacular in flight than the pelicans I see at the beach. While you can get up close and personal with the original specimen, the closest people can get to seeing the splendor of this great bird is a life size cutout above the skeleton. I had once suggested to the Santa Barbara Museum that when the day comes to renovate their paleontology hall (and trust me, it really needs it), they should try to recapture this ancient bird’s glory. I suggested having a reconstructed skeleton (or better yet a fleshed out model) perched on a rocky outcrop with its wings outspread is if it’s preparing for takeoff. The original specimen would be mounted inside the wall of the outcrop. Whether this will be or not is uncertain. The museum turns 100 in 2016 and has accordingly plotted out a master plan to revive the museum for its centennial. I hope my suggestions to the museum at least inspire ideas about what to do. And frankly, if they only listen to one of them, I hope it is my idea for Osteodontornis. He’s been at that museum for a long time. It is only fitting that he gets a grand re-envisioning.

Osteodontornis soaring over the shores of Miocene California (crappy image due to it being scanned in from an archaic 1960's field guide)

Till next time!

Addendum: The Coastal Paleontologist informs me that recent study has shown that there is insufficient evidence for differentiating between pelfronids. As such, Osteodontornis orri is now Pleagornis orri.

The Schnoz of the Brontothere

Hey there every peoples!

Ever been to a museum and seen a big skeleton and thought it was some kind of rhino? So it goes with brontotheres. While I’m sure you read the sign and found out you were wrong, I can’t really blame you. With their bulky bodies, pillar-like legs, and massive heads adorned with long (or short) horns, it’s easy to see why people think they are rhinos. While distantly related to rhinos, brontotheres are a more ancient group and were the largest land animals for at least 10 million years. While they are best known from North America, they have been found extensively in Eurasia as well. And one of those asian brontotheres is the subject of this post (but more importantly, something I recently found out about it).

The animal is known as Embolotherium andrewsi, which translates as “Andrew’s battering ram beast”. You may remember this animal (though not by name) from the BBC special Walking with Prehistoric Beasts. And this post is concerned with a claim made by that show and a recent revelation of mine. In the show the animals was shown with a great rhino-like horn (as it has always been). The show explained that the horn was made of bone, not hair. Rhino horns are made of keratin, the same material as your finger nails, which consists of thousands of tightly backed hairs. And this is true, brontothere horns were made of bone. The show claimed that these structures were too brittle to be used in combat (which the show later contradicted by showing a female brontothere ramming a carnivore full force with her horn). Was this really the case? Well as I found out a few weeks ago, perhaps not.

Embolotherium as it appeared in the BBC special "Walking with Prehistoric Beasts"

About a month ago I visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco for the exhibit Extreme Mammals. The exhibit discussed the incredible abilities and adaptations of mammals throughout their evolution. Early on the exhibit discusses the many elaborate forms mammalian headgear has taken. Sure enough there was a brontothere skull in the mix and it happened to be Embolotherium.

Skull of Embolotherium andrewsi at the California Academy of Sciences exhibit Extreme Mammals

What struck me though was the new hypothesis for the purpose of the animal’s horn. Unlike other brontotheres who had horns on their noses or snouts, new research (as explained by the exhibit plaque) found that Embolotherium’s horn was actually a hyper extended nasal bone. Here, compare Embolotherium’s nose with that of another brontothere:

Skull of Brontops robustus (from Wikipedia)

As you can see, the brontothere above has a nasal bone separate of the horns. But on the Embolotherium skull, there is no separate nasal bone. The nasal bone itself is forming the horn. According to the exhibit, this radically alters the look and behavior of the beast. The exhibit said that the new research found that this hyper extended nasal bone would have created a very tall nasal cavity. The conclusion was that instead of being a ram made of bare bone, the horn instead supported a large fleshy structure:

The new look of Embolotherium

The huge nasal cavity may have acted as a resonating chamber, allowing the animals to make loud booming calls. The exhibit also said males may have fought with them now that we think they were covered in flesh. I imagine these fights may have resembled those of modern pigs where they used their extraordinary structures to push and shove in an up close tussle as opposed to the more violent fights seen amongst bovids (but then again I’m no expert). This doesn’t mean that all brontotheres are going to undergo makeovers. Brontotheres were very diverse with a wide variety of headgear. As the picture further up the post demonstrates, other brontotheres had independent nasal bones and horns. But as I was searching for pictures to use, I came across a rather intriguing one:

Skull of Megacerops coloradensis with a hypothosized reconstruction (from Wikipedia)

I noticed that the horn resembles that of Embolotherium where there doesn’t appear to be a separate nasal bone. Did this species of Megacerops have a nasal chamber like Embolotherium? If so, what does it mean for brontothere taxonomy? Was this a feature of a specific clade or did it independently evolve in different members of the group?

The media is dominated by discoveries of new species (almost overwhelmingly dinosaurs) and breakthroughs in the study of dinosaurs. But as Embolotherium’s massive nose reveals, there is still much to learn about the mammals of earth’s past. Ancient mammals were as diverse and as magnificent as the dinosaurs that over shadow them. Brontotheres in particular have a quality about them that is a little hard to pin down. Needless to say they are among the tops reasons I want to scour the Eocene and Oligocene beds of western North America.

Till next time!

Central Coast Critters: Midget Dolphin

Hey there every peoples!

Sorry for the long delay. I have just had so much to deal with lately (a persuasive speech for speech class, math and geology tests, getting diagnosed with a mild case of clinical depression). And I’m still working on it so try and bear with me if the post is a little brief.

Today I bring you another fantastic fossil from the Central Coast. This time it’s a very tiny dolphin. This specimen was found and collected by Howell Thomas of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It was found in shales of the late Miocene Monterey Formation (10-12 mya) along the shores of Vandenberg Air Force Base. Here it is in all its glory:

Cast of a very small dolphin skeleton at the Lompoc Museum

To give you an idea of how small it is, that scale bar is a foot long! Its skull was about the size of my hand and its vertebra were barely bigger than a quarter. It is still unknown if it is an adult or a juvenile, but if it’s full gown it would be the smallest cetacean known. It is also in need of a name but I have no idea what that is because last I checked it was still under study. Let’s hope they figure it out soon.

Diminutive skull of the Vandenberg Midget Dolphin

Quarter-sized vertebra of the Vandenberg Midget Dolphin

Till next time!