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.

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A Proper Response

Hey there every peoples!
I know I said I was quitting The Grand Vision for good, but I was weak. My depression got the better of me, but thanks to the support of my parents, my therapist, Meredith Riven, Traumador (everyone’s favorite stuffed theropod), and even Mrs. Olson herself, I have come back into the fold.

You may remember my little piece about the fossil whale brains found here in SLO County. Well it seems it got a response from Peaches Olson (the woman whose daughter was in the accident and sister of the woman who found the fossil). I have now come up with a proper response.

Although, I understand your wish for these rare finds to reside in their “home land” and in a museum of their own……….you have two problems. We do not have anyone qualified to study the calliber of these fossils and WHO is going to FUND this kind of Museum?

First off, this woman is not a paleontologist, so I shouldn’t expect her to understand how the science works. Paleontologists do a lot of traveling. No matter how big a museum’s collection is they don’t have everything. Paleontologists often have to travel to multiple museums for the specimens they use in their research. So obviously scientists could come to our museum to study the brains. In fact I think the Central Coast is an optimal place for a museum. Berkeley and Los Angeles, two world renowned museums, are each 4 hours away. That’s well within arm’s reach compared to some other museums they’d have to go to. What is more, because we would be between these two hubs, it would be easier for paleontologists to visit our collections in one fell swoop (start at Berkeley and go south and vice versa). Even if we wouldn’t have someone qualified, they could easily come to us.
And I’d find a way to fund it. It may not be easy, but I’d find a way. I’ll have a bake sale, I’ll get two jobs, I’ll get a loan, I’ll apply for grants, I’ll set up a donation stall at Farmer’s Market, I’ll sell a kidney, I’ll rob a bank, I’ll black mail a rich person. Whatever it takes, I’ll find a way (although I’m obviously kidding about some of those). And if we had such a rare and valuable fossil we could use to garner attention and support.

Although, I appreciate your passion for our past history, I need to emphasize how little credit or notice the central coast gave us of our finds…..Only until, the LA Museum of Natural History, were we even able to get anywhere. This is also true for the McGilvray Brain as well.

All the more reason the Central Coast could use a museum.

Most people who are in our shoes can not afford to go to these facilities for 3 weeks of their lives and with their loved ones who also miss work. We began to think, what are the odds of this spectacular find of a fossilized whale brain providing for a neuro center to help people regain their lives.? What is wrong with giving people a chance of possibilities, they thought would never happen.

Too true. Well I remember reading that the ideal situation is that someone buys the fossil and donates it to a museum. Who knows how long it could take to sell. What if I got an organization up that the fossil could be donated to? Again, we could use such a rare and important find.

here is an article coming out in the Naturalist and National Geographic. Reading about these great finds and their historical studies is often HOW we learn…’s OK that they do not reside right here.

She’s right. I mean, Los Angeles has a a museum for it’s fossils. As does San Bernardino County. Barstow’s “Miocene Motherland” has that museum and the Raymond Alf Museum. San Diego fossils have a home right in Balboa Park. A great deal of Montana’s and Utah’s dinosaurian wealth are nestled in their native range. As are the fossils of New Mexico, Oregon, and northern California. Orange County has the Cooper Center to salvage and preserve their rich paleontological and archaeological past. The tar pits, Diamond Valley, and the Fairmead Landfill all have museums built on site to house their spectacular finds. Nebraska and Florida, two of the best states for Cenozoic fossils, both have committed museums of their own. And don’t forget the Royal Tyrrell Museum. I mean really, why should the Central Coast have one? It’s not like there are any fossil whale brains, butchered mastodons, remains of ice age megafauna, a Miocene version of the Serengeti, the denizens of a sub-tropical rainforest, the transition into open landscapes, a unique island fauna, or dozens and dozens of marine organisms from around here. Nope, nothing that needs an outlet of its own (ok there is the museum in Santa Barbara, but they don’t have much in the way of Central Coast fossils. I would try to realize my dream through them, but they seem happy doing what they are doing and probably don’t what to get caught up in my ambitious delusions).

Why do all those other fossils get to stay in their native lands while ours don’t? I don’t get it. But Meredith Riven of the Cooper Center suggests one possibility:

Another issue is the curatorial crisis – all museums are out of space. LACM, UCMP, SDNHM all have issues finding room for more collections. So at least we can help with some of that. Of course, we are out of space too but since we didn’t start with much at least we have room to grow. Funding that is the next challenge.

See, another reason my museum could be of use. I know museums like to brag about their vast collections, but when does it get too big to manage? Some of these large museums have had new species named from their fossils because they just sat around for 50, 75, even 100 years but because they were “lost” amongst such vast collections they just gathered dust until someone came along. If we were able to bring the fossils of the Central Coast back home, the big museums (Berkeley and Los Angeles) would have some room freed up for their current and future collecting activities. And as noted above, they would still be a relatively short distance away. It’s not like I’m trying to relocate them across the country.

Might I suggest that you volunteer at a Museum or that you further your career in one of these arenas of study?
The archeology at Cal Poly could use a little help……you could start there.

I have tried that. Santa Barbara doesn’t have an active paleontology program. I tried talking to folks at the LA Museum. But apparently I can’t go down for one weekend a month and volunteer there. I have tried going on their field trips to Red Rock Canyon, but those don’t really do much in the way of actually exercising my passion. I mean, yeah I found a fossil, but i couldn’t partake in digging it out or jacketing it, even though I have read about the process all my life, watched countless videos about it, and even practiced it on cow bones in my backyard. Plus, i never really felt like i fit in there. I tried to mingle with the people and the scientists, but i just never felt accepted. Unlike so many of the people there, I haven’t this trip year after year after year (some of the younger folk there are even going to college, or plan to, to pursue a career in paleontology.) so i don’t know many people. I just felt like that weird, stupid, bumbling kid who all the other kids in class just put up with because they are forced to be in proximity to each other. I have done that and trips with the San Bernardino County Museum. But it’s never anything substantive, just pay them and go on a little field trip, nothing like what volunteers and scientists get to do.

I have tried talking to a paleontologist at the LA museum about trying to access their Central Coast material so that i might try to publish a paper on some of it. I thought this would help me get into a university, get to exercise my passion for paleontology, learn more about my home region’s rich fossil record, and share that information with the world. But nope, it got shot down. Apparently community college students don’t count in the grand scheme of things. I have a learning disability and have always struggled with school. God knows if I’ll be able to even get into a university, let alone survive one. All the while i get to sit back and read day in and day out about people going out into the field, finding, and working with fossils. I even read about small museums who managed to create successful paleontology programs but apparently they got something i don’t. I have tried desperately to get off the sidelines but my efforts have for the most part been futile (cause who wants to help a failure like me pursue a career). I am nothing more than a fossil fanboy. I don’t find any fossils, I don’t publish any papers, I don’t volunteer, I don’t teach people about paleontology. I am a ghost in the paleontology community.

People keep telling me that I should to be a teacher. Well i thought with this museum idea of mine, i could not only go into the field and build a collection of fossils, but also share them with the community, teaching people about the science of paleontology, the fossil history of the Central Coast, and the world beyond. It sounds unrealistic, but again Meredith Riven shines some light:

Anything is possible. If brains can fossilize, you can be a paleontologist

The Museum of the Rockies started off with only 3 dinosaur fossils and now they house the largest collection of United States dinosaur fossils known. The little Burpee Museum in Rockford, Illinois was just another small, unknown local museum and now they have a successful paleontology program going. Xiaoming Wang didn’t think there were any fossils in the cliffs above our campground at Red Rock Canyon and yet I managed to find bone fragments up there. And yes, fossilized whale brains. So don’t say something is unrealistic.

The Grand Vision may sound unrealistic, but I’m only 23 (closing in on 24), so who knows what I can pull off in the next 5, 10, 20 years? The Marmarth Research Foundation managed to garner enough funds to build a field laboratory for fossil prep and curation. Marmarth is out in the middle of nowhere. San Luis Obispo County is a well populated, well traveled spot in the most populous state in the country. Who in the world could predict who may show up in support of such a project? Only time will tell.

So I’m back in the game loyal readers. It’s time to stop moping and focus that energy instead on working to bring the Grand Vision to life!

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.

Central Coast Living: Johnson Ranch

Hey there every peoples!

Sorry for the slow. I planned on writing this earlier in the week. But I was having some trouble with videos. It took a long time to render them, only to find out that youtube has a 15 minute limit (I haven’t used youtube for this purpose in a LONG time). So I had to split them up, render them again, and then they took forever to upload to Youtube. I don’t know if that’s Youtube’s fault or my computer’s but it was a pain in the ass. But in the end it was worth it. After all that, I was able to launch a new web series “Doug’s Adventures of Possible Intrigue”. It’s a chronicle of my travels, though I actually try to teach people a thing or two. The pilot episode covers Fossil Fest 2011 at the Raymond Alf Museum in Claremont, California. It’s in three sections so if got some time to kill, go check it out.

I feel a little ashamed (and not just because of my depression). I have only done two “Central Coast Living” posts. You must think this place is sucksville! Well I seek to rectify that with a nice bit of nature off Highway 101. I am talking about Johnson Ranch. It has been open to the public since 2009, but I just never got around to going there. Man was I missing out!

The property was bought by Mark Johnson, an immigrant from Denmark, and his wife Emily in 1901. They had three children and they lived at the many years after Mark died in 1916. The ranch was also home to Bellvue School, which was built in 1987. 20 to 25 students, grade 1-6, attended the one room school. It merged with another school in 1947 and moved closer to San Luis Obispo. For a short time in the 1900s a gravel quarry was opened up and operated on the ranch. All the while the Johnson family continued to live and work on the ranch. In 1981 they started renting the property to others until 2001, when the land was sold to the City of San Luis Obispo. With help from many partners, including CalTrans, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, and Bert and Candice Forbes, the city bought the land to provide refuge for wildlife as well as opening up rails for hikers and cyclists to enjoy the beautiful landscape surrounding San Luis Obispo.

Johnson Ranch is a rich setting not just for hikers but for nature buffs as well. The land teems with unique plants, including rare species of wildflowers. This is due in large part to the nature of the soil. The many rock outcrops dotting the ranch are serpentine, which has an unusual chemical composition that creates for soil for growing things. Native plants managed to adapt over millions of years. Because the soil is so harsh, the ranch was never farmed, providing native plants with a safe haven.  In the spring the hills burst with the colors of fritillary, soap plant, gold star, and many others.

A riparian woodland along Dry Creek

A patch of chapparal habitat on the side of a hill

Johnson Ranch may be small but it supports a wide variety of habitats. Dry Creek provides plenty of water for riparian (streamside) type woodland. Sweeping meadows of purple needlegrass and wild rye stop right at the doorstep of oak woodlands. Finally, because of serpentine outcrops, small patches of chaparral occur here, home to toyon, buckbrush, yucca, and mountain mahogany. This diversity of habitats allows for a diversity of wildlife. At least fifty species of birds are known to live or nest on the ranch. Remember the quarry mentioned earlier? It filled with water seeping in from Dry Creek. Cattails and willow began to grow around it. Soon enough it was another small ecosystem on the ranch. Named Forbes Pond after Bert and Candice Forbes (people whose donation helped the city buy the ranch), it has become a magnet for birds, especially elusive black-crowned night herons, who nest in trees beside the pond. Forbes pond has even become the home of a small population of native, endangered southern steelhead trout. Lizards and snakes scurry through the grass and underbrush. 15 species of mammals, from field mice and bats to deer and bobcats have been documented on the property. All this diversity is well and good, but an alien menace has found its way to Johnson ranch: feral pigs. Probable pig damage. Feral pigs (escaped captive pigs and their offspring) are not native to the Central Coast. They have no natural predators to keep their numbers in check. They compete for food with native herbivores. They cause erosion and disrupt habitats by tearing up the soil looking for roots and tubers.

Probable pig damage on the banks of Dry Creek

Despite the swine problem, Johnson Ranch is a wonderful natural treasure. I find little more soothing than the babbling of Dry Creek or the grass waving in the wind. The ranch has over four miles of hiking trails. You can walk or ride a bike, and rover can even come as long as you keep him on a leash. It is definitely worth carving out a couple hours for if you ever stop by the Central Coast. It may not have the epic forests of the Pacific Northwest or the stunning geology of Death Valley or the breathtaking beauty of Denali. But you know what? I wouldn’t trade Johnson Ranch for any of them. They may be grand in scale, but Johnson Ranch has that special charm that only the Central Coast can offer.

Till next time!

The Sea Cow

Hey there every peoples!

I failed to notice it a couple weeks ago but on February 19th my blog turned 1 year old! Woohoo! So far my cyber rag has garnered more than 6000 views. You know what’s coming next: thanks guys, I couldn’t have done it without you! So what do I do for this momentous occasion? What subject could possibly befit the birthday of a publication such as this? Hmmmm… I know! I’ll talk about the thing that got me on the road to writing this blog as well as my fool hardy quest to found my own museum.

It all began in high school. I was pretty miserable then and was always looking for things to take my mind off how much things sucked (in hind sight, it was most likely my depression). I was riding my bike along San Luis Bay drive in Avila Beach when I saw something poking out of a sandstone bluff. Back in 6th grade I had gone on a little “fossil walk” out in Avila where a paleontologist showed us some marine fossils. But all the ones he showed us were down on seaside ledges, not up on a bluff. So I climbed up to get a better look and couldn’t believe what I saw:

I hadn't realised it et, but everything in my life had lead up to this moment

It was a series of large fossilized ribs poking out of 3.5 million year old sediments. My heart just about stopped. I never thought that I would find fossils at this point in my life, let alone fossils right in my own backyard. I was ecstatic! But since I wasn’t too bright back then (not like I’m much better now) I didn’t think too much of it (namely reporting it to a scientist or anything). Over the years I kept watch over the bones, still in disbelief that they were real. At first I thought they were whale ribs but a couple of marine mammal guys told me they may very well be sea cow ribs based on their shape and apparent density. This made quite a bit of sense actually because if you recall Avila Beach is the type locality for Hydrodamalis cuestae, just about the biggest sea cow ever. So that time forward I came to call it my sea cow.

But as time wore on, so did my sea cow:

December, 2005

September, 2008

March, 2011

Fossils are fragile. Once exposed to the elements, they have little time before they are ground to dust. Unfortunately it takes time and money to dig up fossils and no professionals I talked to seemed interested in investigating a giant sea cow. I tried in vain for 2 years to try and find who owned the bluffs so that maybe I could at least stabilize the bones so they might last until I could figure out the next step. Eventually I did find that it belonged to the harbor district but they have only given me the cold shoulder. And so it appears that my sea cow will be lost to time, the only record of its existence being a few photos and some fragments I salvaged in high school.

This is what truly started me on my quest to found a museum here on the Central Coast. There needs to be someone who will look into and deal with fossils that no one else seems interested in. Just because there are other giant sea cow specimens in museums doesn’t mean this one or any others should be left to rot. And that goes for all the other fossils out there. And with all sorts of development going on, would it not be sensible to have a local museum on hand to monitor the sites? I mean look at this new road cut in Avila, just down the road from my sea cow:

Who knows what may lie beneath, waiting to be uncovered

Also, Pismo Beach is looking to double in size with a gargantuan construction project. Who knows what they might uncover during development. But most importantly, we need a museum to collect the fossils that pop up here and there in our region, fossils that appear to emerge and fade away without anyone noticing. And this sea cow is part of the reason I hope to have a hall devoted to fossil marine mammals. Ultimately, if I can ever get this foolhardy idea of mine off the ground, you can bet the farm its logo will be a giant sea cow. A logo that would not just represent the museum, but will stand as a reminder that we need to do all we can to save the record of life on earth for future generations. My one regret is that one of them had to be sentenced to oblivion for this vision to be realized.

Till next time!