“One person can make a difference and every person should try.”- John F. Kennedy
No doubt you have come here after reading my about section. Well regardless of why or how you came to this page, I’ll lay things out for you.
Growing up, I often lamented living on the Central Coast. I wondered why I couldn’t have been raised in the back country of Utah or Montana where vast stretches of rock lay exposed with fossils poking out for me to find. Hell, I even lamented not living in New York or Los Angeles where there was a big museum with fossils that I could go to or volunteer at. Oh how I envied those who grew up with either of those types of settings.
In the last couple years, however, I have been proven wrong. As I poked around the internet as well as here and there, I began to find something interesting: the Central Coast is full of fossils! (Just so we’re clear, I define the Central Coast as San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties). It was like some kind of rush. My info has grown bit by bit. Each fossil may seem small or insignificant, but when taken together, they have quite a story to tell. For example, during the late Eocene Ventura County was once a sub-tropical forest bounding with lemur-like primates, tapirs, rhinos, primitive carnivores, and other such critters. During the Miocene a shallow sea covered the coast, laying down sediment made from the skeletons of microscopic organisms. The seas teemed with whales, dolphins, sea lions, fish, and algae. On the coast, giraffe-like camels, three-toed horses, four-tusked mastodons, and dogs enjoyed open woodlands. During the Pliocene, a large bay hosted animals not unlike those of today. They ranged from walruses and belugas to small whales and giant sea cows. This great story reached its climax in the Pleistocene, also known as the Ice Age. The environment wasn’t much different than today’s. It was a time when mammoths, mastodons, camels, horses, ground sloths, dire wolves, and saber-tooth cats roamed the Central Coast alongside the region’s first human inhabitants. It’s a great story, and I had no idea it took place here.
But during my little “journey of discovery”, I was confronted with a troubling fact: this story went unheard. Why? Two names kept coming up when fossils from the Central Coast were mentioned: UCMP and Los Angeles. It seems that the majority of the specimens I was learning about were locked up in either the University of California (Berkeley) Museum of Paleontology or the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. As you may or may not know, they are two of the biggest institutions in the western US. Berkeley claims to have the largest fossil collection of any university in the world, with over 7 million specimens in their collection. Los Angeles is the biggest natural history museum in the western US, with over 35 million specimens (though fossils make up only a fraction of that). A basic principle of museums is that they can only display so much, with the vast majority of their holdings remaining off view in the collections (Berkeley is an exception to this principle: they have practically no public displays. They are really more of an institute than a museum). They must choose what to put on display carefully. And this is where Central Coast prehistory is lost. If you had to build an exhibit, what would you think should be displayed: the skeleton of an Allosaurus from Colorado, or a few bones of ice age animals from some place called “Point Sal”? This greatly saddened me. There were all these fossils from my backyard that were diverse and numerous, but locked away where they are never seen, never allowed to tell their story. That has to change.
But that’s not all. While I have loved paleontology my whole life and like most people that love was focused on dinosaurs. It is obvious that dinosaurs dominate the fossil scene, with great exhibit halls and sometimes even whole museums devoted to them. They seem alien, almost like something you wouldn’t find on earth. They were huge, they were fierce, and they bristled with fantastic features. And I ate it all up. Again, I lamented living here, because there was no museums around with dinosaurs. However things began to change in High School. I began gravitating towards the animals that inherited the world the dinosaurs left behind: mammals. It seemed like the more I read, the more I came to love them. Sure, they weren’t as big or scary looking as dinosaurs, but that didn’t matter. They were fascinating, because they were “richly exotic yet strangely familiar”. With prehistoric mammals, you could see modern animals taken in strange directions, like horses with three-toes, elephants with 7-foot jaws, and even flesh-eating walruses! Throughout the stretches of geologic time we can see the origins of our modern world. But as far as museums were concerned, they were small game. It was dinosaurs people yearned to see. It was dinosaurs that drew the crowds. And so prehistoric mammals were pushed aside to make way for the terrible lizards. Many unique animals are stuffed into collections because there is no room to display them, since dinosaurs take up so much space and since they are the crowd favorites, need a larger stage. For example, Los Angeles opens its new Cenozoic Hall this year, with the dinosaur one to open next year. Mammals are crowded into a gallery that doesn’t appear much larger than the one they used to occupy. And guess what: dinosaurs get two galleries. Unless you’re a local museum whose nearby localities yield fossil mammals, you can bet that mammals will get less of the spotlight than dinosaurs. That too has to change.
So how does one go about changing all this? I started toying with various ideas. But the one that kept coming to me was “Give them a new platform”. As I became more intellectually capable, I came to love and appreciate my home. Once you get to know it, you learn to appreciate it. And then I looked at all my museum bookmarks. I noticed that all the big ones, with grand exhibit halls filled with fossils from all over, lie in the east: American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Smithsonian in Washington DC, Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, the Field Museum in Chicago, and others. Hell, even the Burpee Museum in Rockford, Illinois could be counted among them (at the rate they’re going, anyway). I found such museums lacking in the west. Don’t get me wrong, there are some fantastic regional museums here, but as far as grand scale fossil collections and displays of animals from abroad, the only things able to compare are the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (The California Academy of Sciences is pretty expansive, but they seem for focused on the life sciences rather than earth sciences). I thought maybe it’s time to bring another such museum here. But my museum wouldn’t be just a clone of the big leagues.
First off, it would be a paleontology and archaeology museum (all those mentioned above cover all the other branches of natural history in addition to paleontology). But that’s a little trivial. What would set my museum apart is its focus. My museum would feature primarily fossil mammals. I read about wonderful mammal fossils all the time that never get displayed, like Gomphotaria or Capricamelus. I would make sure that my museum gave mammals the attention they deserve. But that’s not to say that dinosaurs won’t be there too. Dinosaurs, while no longer my passion, still hold my interest. Every fossil has a story to tell, and it would be petty and irresponsible of me to exclude dinosaurs all together because they get more attention. But at the very least, in my museum, they would be on equal footing as mammals. Their space would not be any bigger than that of the mammals. As far as collecting, my idea is that for every two or three mammal collecting trips we do; we would do a dinosaur collecting trip. My museum would also feature a large rotating gallery, where fossils from the collection could be displayed for a little while so that they can get some kind of exposure. And we would have more than just a simple open house where we let people into the collections. There would be multiple such events each year. This is all about accessibility. Not all fossils can be displayed. So why not take people back to show them, and while we’re at it, show them how our science of paleontology works. And it wouldn’t just be fossils from abroad. My museum would be active in collecting fossils from localities on the Central Coast. It would also collect fossils found by others through the region (In California, fossils are often found during construction projects).
It’s a very ambitious and needless to say unrealistic vision. I am only one person. I am a community college student (with a learning disability) with only 55 hours of prep experience and no field experience. I know nothing of putting together an organization. I don’t know how to find the places to look for fossils and how to discern who owns it and how to get their permission. I have no job, so I can’t finance little collecting trips of my own to maybe at least get the process started. And yet, I continue to dream. I slowly chip away at putting things together. Not too long ago, I put together a list of formations I’d like to search and printed out a few small geologic maps. I found a building in downtown SLO that looks attractive as a starting home for my museum. I pursue this dream because I continue to read how local fossils disappear into the cavernous collections of major museums. I continue to read about fossils eroding away because there aren’t enough people to collect them. And most infuriatingly, I read about fossils being snatched up by collectors who dig up fossils to sell, collectors who dig them up for their own private collections, and creationists who dig them up to support their pseudoscientific dogma. I feel there is a great need for an institute to help preserve the fossils of not only dinosaurs but also the mammals as well. I feel a great need to give a platform for the lesser fossils that dot my backyard. And that is why I continue to work away at it. Impossible as it may sound, I will do what I can to make it a reality…