Me posing with half of a gigantic whale jaw.
Wait a second, you say. Dinosaur paleontologists scrounge up every scrap of bone, and re-re-describe old fossils (i.e. Dryptosaurus was first described, then re-described, and then re-re-described), and bitch and moan about there not being enough material for new researchers. How would complete skulls of baleen whales just sit on the beach without some intrepid explorer to come along and excavate or collect them? Below, I've got a photo of what used to be a complete baleen whale jaw sitting in a large boulder, ~20 feet above the beach. I climbed up to it, which was pretty hairy – usually the Purisima Formation is sandstone, and easy to carve handholds in, but this was nasty hard fractured mudrock. This jaw must be in a concretion that weighs the same as my small Honda. For baleen whales, jaws are "relatively" diagnostic (see here, here, and Boessenecker 2011), so specimens like this are of interest. Baleen whale skulls are of course diagnostic, and it is unfortunate that they are languishing like this.
It was kind of a pain to get down from there.
One problem, you might say, is that they're big, and in very tough rock. Yes, I spent five years of my life (intermittently) preparing a mysticete skull in a concretion that I collected from the Purisima Formation. Sure, it's a big heavy skull, but surely smaller and less heavy than any ceratopsid skull you can point at. Obviously, blue whales have bigger crania than dinosaurs like Triceratops. Most fossil mysticetes have skulls that are smaller than or roughly the same length as the largest "Torosaurus" skulls, but many museums out there don't hesitate to go dig up more Triceratops skulls. Is it the often concretionary matrix and the time-intensive nature of the preparation that makes whale fossils "unpopular"? I don't think so, because I can't count the number of dinosaur bones (even undiagnostic material like ribs) encased in hard rock being prepared.
Permanently borrowed from SV-POW! Thanks guys, this image is awesome.
Are whales and whale fossils just unpopular within vertebrate paleontology? Maybe. Given how whales captivate the imagination – mind you, not in the gory, Velociraptor-chasing-kids-through-a-kitchen and lawyer-eating sort of way but the holy-shit-its-a-brachiosaurus-on-a-grassy-hill sort of way – I highly doubt that cetaceans lack the cool-factor. They may not have big sharp pointy teeth... oh shit, I forgot that fossil sperm whales are far more impressive than any puny theropod. Sorry, Livyatan beats T. rex. I think the real problem is that we have the Jurassic Park generation in vertebrate paloentology now – and not to sound like a bitchy hipster, although I am of the correct age group – I was into paleontology before Jurassic Park came out.
Nevermind that in the background.
Perhaps this is a problem that is, within the United States, unique to Northern and Central California. Southern California fossil cetaceans are really well taken care of, and get excavated and pampered at places like LACM, the Cooper Center, and the San Diego Natural History Museum. The extremely rich Calvert Cliffs and other Mio-Pliocene units of the Chesapeake Group of the mid Atlantic coastal plain are covered by the Calvert Marine Museum, the Smithsonian, and my dear friend Butch Dooley at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Florida fossils are generally covered by the FLMNH and the University of Florida. The comparatively rich fossil record in the Oligocene and Miocene of Washington State (and parts of Oregon as well) are covered by the Burke Museum in Seattle. However, all of the UCMP students who collected a ton of material from Northern California in the 1970's and early 1980's moved on elsewhere.
I don't mean to complain – having a surplus of fossils available for my research is nothing to complain about. However, it is depressing if not distressing to see so many fossils I could not collect, prepare, and study alone in five or six lifetimes, just sitting out there on the beach. So: to all of you dinosaur folks who feel perhaps the field is a little too crowded, too much of a circlejerk, or whatever, come join marine mammal paleontology! Trust me, there are is a large hoard of new genera and species out there just waiting for the taxonomically hungry. In five years of serious collecting, I've got enough material to research for another ten years, and this is barely scraping the surface. So, this is a call for action! If you're interested in marine mammal paleontology, go dig up a whale (instead of Apatosaurus #32, or NewGenusOfUninterestingChineseDinoBird #54, or re-re-redescribing something everyone is already familiar with) or find someone who can help you (...or me, for that matter).
Sorry for the rambling here, the rest of these posts will be about fieldwork I did with Dick Hilton in May, I promise!