CCC: Rise of the Bear Dogs

Hey there every peoples!

How long has it been since I talked about just Central Coast fossils? Yeah, way too long. So now that i have finally gotten around to it, which one should I do? While I’m not one to let others influence my thought process, the idea for this one came from the geology field course i took this semester.

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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

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“Better Know a Museum” Month Part 4: Return to the Age of Mammals

Hey there every peoples!

Welcome to the finale of “Better Know a Museum” Month. What a ride, huh? Yeah it’s two weeks late. But i had finals last week and typing this out has just been so tedious. I really need to invest in some voice recognition software. Anyway, everything good must eventually come to an (or continue to live on in a despoiled state. I’m looking at you Star Wars!). And for the final installment of this special series i have decided to revisit a previous review.

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Red Rock Canyon 2011

Hey there every peoples!

Long time. Same excuse. Been very very busy the last few weeks. Going to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios, Seeing the new Hall of Life at the Raymond Alf Museum, visiting my sister in Pasadena after her horrible accident, having to ride my dad’s bike/take the bus because the transmission on my Ghettomobile (aka 1993 Geo Prizm) died, and just fighting with my depression as usual. But one thing out of the busy mess was the Natural history Museum of Los Angeles County’s annual field trip to Red Rock Canyon State Park out in the Mojave Desert. You may recall my discussion on my first time last year. Well no need to talk about all that again, so here is my coverage of this year.

First, we get an intro to the paleontoogy of the park, meet the staff, and go searching for fossils on Saturday:

Then that night, Xiaoming gave a wonderful lecture on his new species of woolly rhino from Tibet (which i think he just gave at SVP):

finally, when all hope seemed lost, i found the complete ulna (lower arm bone) of a giant camel (at least i think it was a giant camel), plus my after thoughts:

And a more stable, in-depth look at the process:

All in all, it was a very good time. I hope i will be able to go next year. Now to get to work on some long over due posts.

Till next time!

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!

Fossil Localities: Red Rock Canyon

Hey there every peoples!

At the end of the spring semester this year my geology teacher recommended something to me. He said that the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County had a trip where you could go out to Red Rock Canyon State Park in the Mojave Desert and look for fossils. Seeing as I am ever so anxious to get out into the field and look for fossils, I jumped at the opportunity. I looked it up on the internet, marked my calendar for the day I could register, and waited patiently for that day. Once that was achieved it was another couple of months before I would actually get to go. But before I ramble on about this trip, I think a little background is in order.


Some of the beautiful rock formations of Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon lies in the Mojave Desert about 2 hours east of Bakersfield. Paleontologists in the early 20th century discovered that the bright colored crags and shrubby sands harbored a detailed record of a lost world. Named the Dove Spring Formation, the geologic unit spans the late Clarendonian to early Hemphillian (12 to 8 million years ago). During this time Red Rock canyon was further south than today, having been pulled north by the San Andreas Fault. Nearby volcanoes occasionally blanketed the area with ash, helping to preserve (and in the future date) this ancient environment. And what of the environment? Fossil plants, wood, and pollen have helped paint a picture that reveals the Mojave Desert was very different millions of years ago. The landscape was laced with rivers and ponds from which patches of woodland sprang. Vast swaths of grass grew between them. The climate was sub tropical, as revealed by the presence of certain plants like acacia and magnolia trees. The area was an elevated basin believed to be as much as 9,000 feet above sea level. Millions of years of erosion (which helped to create the park’s spectacular geology) wore it away to its current elevation.

The formation has yielded an abundance of fossils camels, five species thus far, ranging in size from a gazelle to a giraffe. Four species of pronghorns, smaller than today’s variety, have also been fairly prolific. A species of peccary and a late species of oreodont help round out the artiodactyl fauna. Horses are also common, with both functionally three-toed and functionally one toed varieties known. At least two species of rhinos and the ever present Gomphotherium represent the heavy weights of the assemblage amidst a profusion of micro critters. This abundant diversity of herbivores was stalked by a variety of carnivores. Perhaps the top predator in the area was the big bear dog Ischyrocyon (Nimravides might have been at the top, but determining if it was in the area is a work in progress). The nimravid Barbourofelis witfordi (once known as Barbourofelis osborni) shared this place with the cougar-size cat Pseudaelurus. Dogs were by far the most diverse carnivores, with small fox and coyote-like dogs living in the shadow of larger bone- crushing brutes like Borophagus and the giant Epicyon. Ten million years ago Red Rock Canyon was, for all intents and purposes, the African Savannah.

Sounds like a hell of a place doesn’t it? Even more so once you get out there. It has some spectacular geology, I’d say on par with Barstow or maybe even John Day. Combine that with the picturesque Mojave Desert and you’ve got one of California’s most awesome state parks. I had seen the place once before a few years ago but it was just a quick stop on the way back from Death Valley. To see more of it was one of the reasons I went on this trip. The main reason of course was to see what clues to its past we could tease out of the ground.

Like the trips I’ve taken with the San Bernardino County Museum several curators attended this trip. Chief among them (at least from my perspective) were retired curator Dave Whistler and current curator Xiaoming Wang. If you’re wondering why he sounds familiar, it’s because he was one of the guys who authored that kickass dog book a while back. Xiaoming was nice enough to give me a lift to the places where we prospected (and even nicer to put with my enthusiasm for the weekend). The guy Certainly knows his stuff. Dave Whistler was also a pleasure to talk to. As well as paleontology, the guy sure knows his way with desert plants (though it may just be these desert plants. Dr. Dave has been going out there a LONG time).


Dr. Xiaoming Wang

Dr. Dave Whistler

So what exactly did we find? Not as much as previous trips according to people who have done this before (one guy said he didn’t like the first site). I myself found what I always find when searching for fossils: bupkis. I found a few root casts, some petrified wood, and lots of little bone shards (who didn’t find those?). Other people had better luck. At the end of the trip our tally was: a distal camel femur, a distal camel humerus, part of a camel vertebrae, a Pliohippus tooth (I think. It was a horse tooth, I know that much), a camel ankle bone, a distal horse metapodial, fragments from a juvenile gomphothere tooth, and a little bit I called “Mr. Contentious” since they couldn’t agree on what it was (Dave thought it was part of the enamel band found on gomphothere tusks. Xiaoming and Gary thought it was a piece of rhino incisor). Before we had set out I foolishly proclaimed that my goal was to find one of those gnarly rhino teeth.


Distal end of a camel femur

A UC Riverside student named Bridgette (who was my buddie for the weekend) found this pelvis thought to be from an ancient rabbit

Yeah, i put my crappy finds on the Table of Discoveries. I have depression! My self-confidence is practically non existent! I needed to feel like i accomplished something!

So even if I didn’t find anything it was a very interesting and worthwhile trip. Learning about the paleontology and ecology of Red Rock Canyon was very interesting and I had a great time talking with the curators (current or otherwise). I will certainly go back next year (if anything to find that rhino tooth!). And maybe in the distant future I can do my own prospecting out there. Because this place is awesome. I wish to help tell its story anyway I can. Thank you LA Museum for providing me an opportunity to search for fossils, thank you volunteers for covering all the logistics, and thank you Dave and Xiaoming for putting up with me!

Till next time.