The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fun with Fossils

A few months back, I wrote a post regarding my training as a paleontological monitor at the Fairmead Fossil Museum.  Well, a couple of weeks back, Kaylia and I arranged a trip for Fresno SWAC*, though only a few of the members ultimately ended up attending.  Still, it was fun, and I am once again monitoring (now for 10 hours a day, in a landfill, surrounded by loud heavy equipment, and in a landfill!  Hooray!**) so I don't have a whole lot of time to write (though I will be trying to get a regular wordy post out later this week), here's what amount to weekend trip photos to bore you all!

 The museum houses both actual fossils and a large number of replicas of fossils that have been unearthed at the Fairmead Landfill site (located, surprisingly enough, at the Fairmead Landfill in Madera County).  Hey, I've got photos!  You want to see a picture of a landfill taken from the street?  Of course you do!

The Fairmead Landfill, in all of it's glory.

The majority of the fossils recovered from the landfill are in storage until such time as the paleontologists at the museum are able to finish unpacking the plaster jackets in which they sit.  Some of the others are kept at UC Berkeley despite attempts by Madera County to get them back (I think that UC Berkeley is full of bastards, but then I would***).  However, a few samples are present at the museum for public viewing, the coolest of which was a mammoth skull and tusks suspended from the ceiling at the height that this animal's head would actually have been in life:

The hovering mammoth skull, coming soon
to a theater near you, in horrifying 3-D!

Articulated replicas of many of the skeletons found at the museum were also an display (though most of these replicas were of the other samples from the species, and not necessarily the precise fossils found at the Fairmead site):

The cast, in order of appearance: Short-faced bear, bear and friends, 
smilodon and giant ground sloth, dire wolf, Kaylia (not a fossil) and the 
ground sloth, camel (yep, camels once lived in California, during 
the Pleistocene)

What was fascinating about the fossils found at the museum is what the reveal about what California's San Joaquin Valley was like during the middle Pleistocene.  The valley is now known primarily for 1) being one of the world's agricultural powerhouses; 2) being the place that most Californians either want to leave or are happy that they don't call home; 2) being the place where heat is manufactured for export to other places.  Where it's not covered in farms, it's covered in invasive grasses and oak woodland with a few creeks and numerous seasonal waterways running through it.  During the middle Pleistocene, however, the mix of plant and animal remains found in the region indicate that it was closer to the African savanna, and teemed with wildlife that most of us would consider rather exotic now, such as camels and large cats (saber toothed tigers, but also other types of large feline predators), species of elephant (the Colombian Mammoth - a larger, and non-woolly version of the mammoth), and giant ground sloths (huge versions of the sloth that you can now find living in Central and South America). 

The landfill also has yielded several fossils of ancient horses - an animal native to the Americas but that migrated to Asia during the Pleistocene and eventually died off in the Americas.

Yipee!  Horse skulls!

While small, the museum is a good place to kill a couple of hours.  The displays explain the science clearly, and the laboratory where the paleontologists work, while enclosed, is visible to the public (and some of the paleontologists like talking with the public).

Thrill to the office space of the paleontologist!

In the end, it was a groovy trip, and if you are in Madera County or the surrounding area, it's worth checking out.

Kaylia runs in terror from the re-animated
skeleton of a short-faced bear!

The members of SWAC who attended the trip - Jerred, Eric, Robin, and Kaylia,
photo by me.

*SWAC = Skeptics Without a Cause, a group that originally formed in Santa Cruz after my better half witnessed an atheist group imploding.  Some of the members of that group, my dear partner included, formed the original Santa Cruz SWAC as a place for those who value science, critical thinking, and just generally not accepting made-up-crap at face value to meet and socialize without having any particular political or activist agenda.  When Kay and I moved to Fresno, we started a local branch.

**Curious note, one of the workers at the landfill where I am working had previously worked at the Fairmead Landfill and decided to make it clear to me what he thought of paleontologists, which wasn't anything good.  I pointed out that I am an archaeologist and not a paleontologist, but he didn't seem to want to believe me. 

***I attended UC Santa Cruz, which I like to say has a long un-acknowledged rivalry with UC Berkeley.  We at and from Santa Cruz feel that we, as the other University of California campus in the Bay Area, that we could hold our own academically with UC Berkeley.  The students at UC Berkeley, however, were surprised to hear that there was a UC campus other than Berkeley.

Seriously, they call their own campus "Cal" to shorten it for "University of California" because they are blissfully unaware that there are, in fact, nine other UC campuses.  Oh, and all of them are considered quite good.  In your face, UCB!

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