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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Better Know a Museum: The Cooper Center

Hey there every peoples!

I’m having a little trouble with my math homework, so i haven’t been able to blog as much as I’d like. Anyway, here is a video of my recent jaunt to the John D. Cooper Center in Orange County, California. This awesome little gem is the official home of all the fossils and artifacts found in Orange County (the the bad ass crusher walrus Gomphotaria was absent). The paleontology curator, Meredith Riven, was nice enough to show us around.

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.

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!

S.O.S.: Save the Buena Vista Museum!

Hey there every peoples!

I figured that for once I won’t be the only depressed person! That’s right I’m taking you all down with me! Bwahahahahahaha!

But seriously, this is depressing news. I just visited the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History in Bakersfield and learned a most awful truth. They’re in danger of losing their enviable collection of marine fossils from Sharktooth Hill! What’s happening is that the fossils have been on display for the last 15 years due to a loan from a private collector (Bob Ernst, who wanted to create a place to display local fossils). Well as noted in my “Sources of Inspiration” post, Bob tragically passed away a few years ago. I guess whoever gained control over his estate has decided to auction off the fossils. If the museum can’t come up with the dough by December 1, their priceless collection of marine fossils will be lost forever. Just look at what’s at stake:

Nearly complete skeleton of Allodesmus, an ancient sea lion

I wanted to weep when i saw this...

A skeleton of a juvenile baleen whale

Seriously, what is anyone going to do with a fossil whale skeleton?

The soccer ball-sized skull of a leatherback turtle

And it's gone. How many of those are known? Jesus christ...

A large case that once housed the the skulls, jaws, and other bones of the ancient dolphin Prosqualidon...

... is now emptier than a tea party canidate's rhetoric...

And those aren’t the only things. They have loads more that is being packed up and shipped to auction storage as we speak (including preciously rare fossils of the giant sea bird Osteodontornis). This is a tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude. Bob spent the later part of his life hunting for fossils to fill a museum that would teach people about Kern County’s rich fossil heritage. And now his dream will be shattered. I admit that the fossils are the property of whoever now possesses them and they are free to do as they wish with their newfound fossils. But that can’t mean I can’t condemn them for their actions! Shame on you for destroying a valued local resource you materialistic weasel! You could very easily have just donated the specimens to the museum. But I guess you heard how much fossils can fetch and decided that getting a fat sum of money is more important than fulfilling a good man’s wish.

But you can help! The museum is trying to raise as much money as possible to save what they can. Any amount will help because it all adds up! Their goal is $150,000. Please do what you can. This collection is the result of one man’s passion and has taught thousands of people about one of the best known fossil sites in the world. And as the pictures show, many rare and important specimens are at risk of being lost to not only science but also the public and most importantly the people of Kern County themselves! Please help the Buena Vista Museum save their crown jewels! (click on the pictures to go to my flickr album and see all the other fossils being thrown on the auction block!)

Help! Save me!

Till next time!

Addendum: new efforts to save the fossils here: https://accpaleo.wordpress.com/2011/09/14/sharktooth-hill-fund/