The Hit List

As if it wasn’t readily apparent by now, I am highly ambitious, probably too much for my own good. Anyway, since the goal of my museum is to create a platform for the lesser known fossils of the world. In my eye there are quite a few places that need such a place. So i thought i’d list them here for whatever reason.

Central Coast– The main reason i have embarked on my epic quest to start a museum around here. The Central Coast is home to several fossil bearing strata that have been heavily raided by large “foreign” museums.

Sespe formation- The Sespe formation is exposed mainly in Ventura County. It is a complex and deep geologic unit. Two important faunas are found in its layers. The first dates to 42 million years ago when the region was subtropical and covered by lush forests. Animals include brontotheres, rhinos, primates, rodents, crocodiles, turtles, mouse deer, primitive hoofed mammals, and various carnivores including creodonts and miacids. The second fauan is from much later in time, during the middle Oligocene (29 mya). Evidence of this fauna largely comes from the Kew Quarry (fossils from which form this blogs banner), though a few fossils have been found elsewhere. The fauna of this time consists of three-toed horses, rhinos, tortoises, beardogs, sabertooth “cats” (nimravids), true dogs, and oreodonts.

The Caliente formation- The Caliente formation is found around Cuyama County at the confluence of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties. This incredible unit spans almost 20 million years of time from the Late Hemingfordian (20 mya) to the early Hemphillian (6 mya). This gives us a great view of how life changed through time. Horses and camels are the most common, but dogs, cats, elephants, rhinos, beardogs, peccaries, antelope, deer, oreodonts, and many extinct groups (ie chalicotheres, dromomerychids) have all been found here. More work needs to be done on the Caliente, and I hope I get to be on the forefront of that.

Monterey and Sisquoc formations- These units are the reigning marine rocks on the Central Coast. Dating from the middle to the late Miocene, these diotomaceous (Sisquoc) and shale (Monterey) layers have yielded everything from algae and fish to whales, dolphins, seals, sharks, and even a giant “toothed” sea bird!

Pismo formation- This middle Pliocene (~3.5 mya) formation was once described by Lawrence Barnes (a prominant paleontologist from the Los Angeles Natural History Museum) as being on par with famously rich fossil sites like Rancho La Brea or Dinosaur National Monument. Whales, dolphins, sharks, and walruses are known from the Pismo, but the star of the formation is a giant sea cow (Hydrodamalis cuestae).

Pleistocene- Fossils from the Pleistocene (commonly referred to as the ice age) have been found throughout the Central Coast, most of them dating to the late Pleistocene (40,000 to 10,000 years ago). Arroyo Grande, Point Sal, and Vandenberg Air Force Base are just a few localities to produce fossils from this time. Moorpark in Ventura County yielded  the skull, tusk, and skeleton of a southern mammoth (Mammuthus meridionallis), possibly the most complete specimen of this species in North America. Carpinteria in southern Santa Barbara County hosted its own version of the La Brea Tar Pits. Horses, bison, wolves, lions, sabertooth cats, deer, and skunks as well as a great diversity of birds, like condors, teratorns, hawks, turkeys, quail, pigeons, and many more. Plant remains and even some marine fossils were pulled from the black ooze. But the Central Coast’s most famous and unique ice age locality is the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. Isolated from the mainland, the islands allowed the evolution of a unique fauna, like large mice, flightless diving geese, and the iconic pygmy mammoths.

Kern County- The Central Coast’s neighbor to the east has a fossil record on par with its own. And just like the Central Coast it appears to very underrepresented in the museum sphere (seen in a few small exhibits scattered throughout California). That’s reason enough for me!

Goler formation- This place is home to the only Paleocene fauna west of the Rockies. The Paleocene is the period of time following the extinction of the dinosaurs. Fossils from this time are few and far between. That makes the Goler a very important componant in our understanding of how life recovered after the most famous mass extinction in earth history.

Sharktooth Hill- Sharktooth Hill is one of the greatest bonebeds in the fossil record. Spanning the middle Miocene (16-13 mya), major museums have been excavating the extremely rich deposit for decades. Whales, dolphins, sea lions, desmostylians, sea cows, fish, birds, sharks (hence the name) and land mammals have been found in great abundance. Most of the bonbed is on private property so this is probably the biggest pipe dream o them all. Nonetheless, this important site doesn’t get the face time it deserves, which means it makes the list nonetheless.

Red Rock Canyon- Located in the very picturesque badlands of the Mojave Desert, Red Rock Canyon is a Clarendonian (late miocene, 12-8 mya) that has yielded an important assemblage of land mammals. Like Sharktooth Hill, it has been extensively collected by major institutions buts is unknown outside of a small local museum and an almost tokenesque display at the LA Museum. Gomphotheres, two types of rhinos, several species of dog, two cats and a nimravid, a bear dog, several horses, 5 camels, a pecarry, an oreodont, and a couple species of antelope. Red Rock Canyon parallels the Caliente formation in time and faunal composition, thus furthe cementing its inclusion on this list.

Coso Mountains and Tulare formation- A pair of Pliocene (4-2 mya) localities. Since there are no terrestrial pliocene fossil units on the Central Coast (that i know of at least), these would fill an important gap in the narrative of time. Unfortunately, the Tulare is on oil land and the Coso deposits on strictly controlled BLM land, so whether or not i will ever be able to probe their secrets I have no idea.

Other Spots in CaliforniaCalifornia has (in my opinion) one of the best Cenozoic fossil records in North America. Even without the Central Coast and Kern County there are many incredible localities.

Panoche Hills- The best Mesozoic marine fauna west of the Rockies (pretty much the only one, save for some fossils found on Vancouver Island). Plus it’s close enough to the Central Coast that it’s probably a safe bet that the same animals were swimming around here at the time. Numerous mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, turtles, and even a couple dinosaurs have been found in these marine beds.

Rainbow Basin- This locality, situated outside of Barstow, is world famous for its Miocene fossils. Except that only one small (Raymond Alf) and one moderately sized (San Bernardino County) museums display anything from there. Perhaps due to my many visits to said museums and my interactions with their wonderful curators, I have developed quite an interest in this legendary fossil formation. Plus it correlates with the Caliente formation. Hopefully, some day, we can get out there and ply the earth for fossils.

Anza Borrego- Seems like the only place you can go out and search for Pleistocene fossils [don’t know of any Pleistocene formations that you can go out and search like other beds (like Hell Creek or Barstow)]. Well, Plio-Plesticene. Anyway, after reading “Fossil Treasures of the Anza Borrego Desert”, I became interested in what this wondrous place has to offer. Considering Rancho La Brea gets all the attention for Pleistocene fossils, Anza Borrego would be a great candidate for my museum.

John Day Fossil Beds– Yale, Berkeley, and the Smithsonian all have collections from this epic series of fossil bearing strata spanning nearly 40 million years! And while a few museums in Oregon do display fossils from here (and that’s great. Local museums displaying local fossils for the win!), you don’t see them displayed outside the state. After first visiting the monument 6 years ago, i have become fascinated with the fossils of the John Day Basin and their incredible tale.

John Day formation- The 29 mya Turtle Cove member is almost identical to the Oligocene of the Sespe formation in age and fauna. This extremely prolific unit continues to churn out fossils of dogs, nimravids, horses, camels, entelodonts, camels, and a great diversity of oreodonts, to name a few.

Mascal formation- The Mascal formation is another strong correlate with the Caliente formation. It also preserves some of North America’s first elephants. And I love fossil elephants!

San Juan BasinLarge expanse of desert wilderness in northwestern New Mexico hosts a truly spectacular sequence of time. From the late Cretaceous (75 mya) to the early Eocene (50 mya), the San Juan Basin details the twilight and fall of the dinosaurs, the recovery of the earth after the catastrophic K-P extinction, and the rise of mammals to rule a new earth.

Fruitland and Kirtland formations- For some reason I have become smitten with southern dinosaurs. I was drawn into the idea of dinosaur provincialism, but I have become especially interested in the dinosaurs of the southern states. These units fall well within that context. Interestingly they have been know for a very long time but have not been as extensively explored as their contemporaries in Montana and Alberta. Critters include the mighty Pentaceratops, tyrannosaurs, ankylosaurs, pachycephalosaurs, and the charsimatic hadrosaur Parasaurolophus.

Ojo Alamo sandstone- Fieldwork, research, display, and discussion about the latest cretaceous is heavily focused on the Hell Creek formation in Montana and the Dakotas. But as I have stressed before, we can’t let just one locality and/or one fauna speak for the bigger picture. The Ojo Alamo seems to have the potential to show us the lead up to the K-P extinction. The most prominent member of the fauna is the titanosaur Alamosaurus. A recent study (based on fossils from the Ojo Alamo) suggests that Alamosaurus was one of the largest dinosaurs known. Another curious species is Ojoceratops. Whether it is valid or just another triceratops has yet to be seen, but it has important implications for the evolution and ecology of North America’s latest Cretaceous dinosaurs. Tyrannosaurs, nodosaurs, and oviraptorsaurs round out the currently known dinosaur fauna. Much work remains to be done on this important chapter in earth’s history. I hope that we can be a part of it.

Nacimiento formation- The extinction of the dinosaurs left a world devoid of ecological niches large and small alike. The Nacimiento formation is one of the few places in the world to show us the immediate aftermath. Dating to 62 million years ago (early Paleocene), it preserves a humid and lush swamp teeming with life. Crocodiles, turtles, primates, and a suite of primitive mammals (many with no modern descendants) lived in a world of new opportunity. Given how the Goler only preserves teeth and jaw fragments, the fossils of the Nacimiento are crucial to fleshing out the early history of the Cenozoic.

San Jose formation- The Sespe formation preserves animals of the middle Eocene, but it is only one chapter of a long and complex period. The early Eocene, as preserved in the San Jose formation, documents the diversifiation of mammals into new niches. Large body size evolved in the vacuum left by the dinosaurs. The first horses, early primates, archaic carnivores, large flightless birds, and primitive rodents as well as several extinct groups reigned supreme in a world now dominated by rainforests.

Utah- Land of dinosaurs if ever there was one. Between Utah and New Mexico, you pretty much have dinosaurs covered!

Morrison Formation- Ok, yeah, this unit has been searched to death. But in all honesty, it is a necessity. The general populace doesn’t love the Cenozoic as much as i do, so in order to really garner interest we need dinosaurs. Also, the Morrison is the only place in North America to find Jurassic fossils (thank god it’s ridiculously prolific). Lastly, i want to find me some Jurassic predators. Allosaurus is one of my favorite prehistoric animals, but i’m more interested in the other carnivores of the Morrison. We know so little about them. We know the Morrison had a diverse carnivore guild and yet the fossil assemblage is overwhelmingly dominated by Allosaurus. I mean we have found fossils of Ceratosaurus, Torvosaurus, Marshosaurus, Stokesosaurus, Saurophaganax, Ornitholestes, and Coelurus. But said fossils are few and far between. I think this unusual bias in the fossil record, where one animal dominates an obviously diverse carnivore assemblage, is one of the great enigmas of modern paleontology.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument- At least in part due to the fossils coming out of this modern day wilderness, I have been pulled into the idea of “Dinosaur Provincialism”. This idea posits that there different dinosaur faunas living along the coast of the Western Interior Seaway 80-75 million years ago. Some kind of physical barriers must have existed since different species are found in one place and nowhere else. This school of thought has really come to light in the last decade or so due to the discovery of dinosaurs in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (more specifically the Kaiparowits formation). At least six new species of dinosaur have been found and the Kaiparowits shows no signs of slowing down in harboring new discoveries. Since I’ve been yanked into this idea of provincialism, i want to try and build a provincial collection (no matter how implausible that goal may be). Since Utah lies in the middle, it’s a vital component to such a collection. That, and somehow Gryposaurus monumentensis has become my favorite hadrosaur…

North Horn Formation- As with the Ojo Alamo Sandstone, Utah’s North Horn formation is from the same time as the intensely studied Hell Creek formation and yet no one pays it any mind. So far it is the northernmost occurrence of the southern or “Alamosaurus” fauna. So far only 3 dinosaurs have been found: Alamosaurus, Torosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus. I want to give a platform to things that don’t have one (or at least a very weak one). The North Horn is another excellent candidate.

Other Mesozoic localitiesA smattering of other Mesozoic fossil bearing units that have caught my eye.

Baja California- That’s right, there are dinosaurs south of California’s border! Just like the Kirtland/Ojo Alamo in New Mexico, little is known about the dinosaurs of the El Galo formation in Baja California (regular Mexico). Thereopods are known from just teeth, and bones hint that the largest hadrosaur ever may have lived there. The LA Museum found a bunch of stuff back in the 60s/70s, including skin impressions, but as far as i can tell nothing has been done since. This is probably my biggest dinosaur-bearing target, even surpassing New Mexico. Why? It is probably our best idea of dinosaurs in California and perhaps the Pacific Coast in general. Pretty much everything we know of Laramidia comes from the eastern side of the continent. The west side… jack squat feels generous. Not only was a lot of the west (though not all) underwater during the Age of Dinosaurs, but it has also underwent unimaginable amounts of geological upheaval, including faulting, glaciers, and rampant volcanism. Perhaps dinosaurs in the west also exhibited provincialism, we’ll probably never know. But the scant material collected thus far suggests that an exciting chapter in the story of dinosaur provincialism is waiting to be uncovered in the deserts of Baja. If I can ever get this unrealistic vision off the ground, I will work with all my being  to uncover the Forgotten Dinosaurs of the Lost Continent.

Fort Cridenten formation- Another dinosaur fauna tying into the idea of provincialism, but this one is in Arizona. So far not much has been done there, although sparse field work has uncovered t yrannosaurs, titanosaurs, hadrosaurs, ceratopsians, crocodiles, a lizard, several types of turtles, garfish, bowfin, clams, snails, and petrified wood. Like Baja, it has a unique and important part to play in our understanding of late Cretaceous North America.

Kayenta formation- Most Jurassic fossils in museums are from the late Jurassic. This formation is from the middle Jurassic. It documents dinosaurs diversifying and becoming the dominant large animals on earth. Some recent work has been carried out by Texas Memorial Museum, but even then, more needs to be done. We only get a good understanding of a fossil fauna after decades of collecting fossils. The few dinosaurs discovered so far include prosauropods, a small primitive armored dinosaur (Scutelosaurus), and the ever famous Dilophosaurus. Primitive mammals and other reptiles have also been found.

Two Medicine formation- Plain and simple. This represents the north of Laramidia. Alright, Alberta is farther north but apparently they don’t let dinosaur fossils leave the country. But the Two Medicine is right here in the states. Besides, you can’t have a provincial collection with just the stuff from the south (even though Grand Staircase and San Juan are technically in the middle, but i’ll leave Big Bend in Texas for others). Meh!

So there you have it. Those are all the places i want to go hunt for fossils. Very ambitious and 99.99% fantasy. Seriously, i’ll probably be lucky to search 2 or 3 of those before i die. This is one of those things where the Noonday Demon is constantly trying to creep in and wrest back control. I can push him back, but how long can i hold out? To make a long story short, i just want to explore these amazing fossil localities, learn their secrets, and tell their tales in the hopes that i can help them inspire others the same way they inspire me.

1 thought on “The Hit List

  1. Enjoyed your site. There are many rock hound groups in California..That might donate to your collection. The thrill of discovery is a wondrous thing. It has kept young forever.

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