Tuesday, December 27, 2011

October pinniped excavations

Dick Hilton and I excavating a pair of fur seal (Thalassoleon) dentaries from the base of the cliff.

A famished yearling California Sea Lion on the beach.

The weekend before the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Las Vegas, my wife and I joined Dick Hilton from Sierra College for what we assumed would be a routine visit to the Purisima Formation at Point Reyes. We drove up on a Friday night, and cooked hot dogs at the campground with Dick, and set up our tent for the weekend. The following morning, we set out along the shoreline, and within five minutes, found what appeared to be a pinniped skeleton. Since we wanted to get on to more prosperous localities further down, we left it there with the intention of digging it up the following day (Sunday).
My wife pointing to something tiny she is proud of finding...

It's a beautiful fur seal (Thalassoleon) molar! She has a real eye for finding things like tiny pinniped and shark teeth, which is why I keep her around.

Dick Hilton trying to explain something to my wife and I. At least I hope he was talking to my wife, because it sure looks like I wasn't paying attention.

As we headed further on down to the good section of shoreline, I found a well preserved porpoise earbone (petrosal), and a few other odds and ends. Not too long afterward, and nearly at the same time, Dick spotted a couple bones eroding out with an associated tooth, and my wife spotted a well preserved fur seal tooth (Thalassoleon), only a few meters away. It took us the better part of an hour to dig the bones up – which turned out to be a pair of associated fur seal dentaries! Unfortunately, neither specimen had any cheek teeth, but one did have a broken canine. Either way, only the middle chunk of the dentary is preserved in the holotype of Thalassoleon macnallyae (from the same locality), and these are the most complete and well preserved jaws of this taxon now known. We hiked down the beach a little further, and collected a couple of pinniped limb elements – a proximal end of a tibia, and a metatarsal. After collecting these, we headed back towards the cars. On our way back, I spotted a string of a dozen articulated pinniped vertebrae – a second skeleton we would have to excavate the following day.

A cast of the holotype skeleton of Parabalaenoptera baulinensis on display at the visitor center.

For comparison, there is also a skeleton of an adorably tiny (~15 feet long) minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) on display as well.

My wife examining some baleen (presumably from a balaenopterid) at the visitor center.

We also finally had a chance to visit the visitor’s center; previously, I had always been there on a weekday, when the center was closed. I was particularly excited to check it out because it has one of the only known casts of the holotype skeleton of Parabalaenoptera baulinensis (which was excavated from the Santa Cruz Mudstone at a nearby locality) on display – there is one other, but it is at the College of Marin in Kentfield, and is falling apart and badly needing repairs.

My wife decided she was done, and decided to spend the day reading A Game of Thrones on the beach and napping and taunting birds all day.

On the second day, we spent about seven hours excavating the first pinniped skeleton, which resulted in about 100 pounds of tin-foil jackets. This skeleton is probably of a large fur seal or small walrus, and the skeleton was completely disarticulated; as soon as we were close to removing one bone, another would be under it, or behind it. There were probably about two dozen or so bones in the cliff that we excavated. At about 4 in the afternoon, we wrapped up the first excavation, and walked down the beach to relocate the articulated skeleton. It took a while to relocate it, but as soon as we did, we started excavating it in a large block. Thanks to the specimen being articulated, we were able to finish this excavation in a little over an hour. Once we got back to the car, we loaded up nearly two hundred pounds of fossils we had collected in only two days in the field; furthermore, the most ridiculous aspect of the weekend was that by weight, cetacean fossils comprised less than 1% of our haul (only one specimen). For the uninitiated – pinniped fossils are relatively rare, and my master’s thesis sample of specimens indicates that there is a 4:1 ratio of cetacean fossils to pinnipeds, and that pinnipeds constitute only 8% of the marine vertebrate assemblage from the Purisima Formation at Santa Cruz. To collect a pair of associated dentaries, a tooth, a couple of associated hindlimb bones, and two skeletons (one being articulated) all in one weekend – is surprising, and tripled the number of major pinniped finds I’ve made. I’ll post some updates when some of this material gets prepared.

She nearly got this gull to come to her backpack. Sorry, no pictures of the pinniped excavation.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

New mysticete excavation, part 3

Hey Folks,

I already told the whole story of the excavation in the last two posts. However, if you'd like to see a recap of the whole dig, check out the animation I made below:


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

New mysticete excavation, part 2

On day two, we returned to continue the excavation process. We had mostly pedestaled the specimen on the first day, but we had not yet undercut the block. We thought we could get all of it out in one large jacket. Unfortunately, I knew this might be difficult because there were multiple fractures through the concretion - most concretions I've collected are very strong and have no cracks, but occasionally large ones are fractured, which could spell disaster during the jacketing process.

The skull on friday morning.

The tunnel I dug under the right side of the skull.

We got back to the locality on friday morning, and began to undercut the pedestal. Normally, a small jacket just requires a trench to be dug around the fossil, and then you undercut the bottom of the trench and dig under the fossil a bit - this allows a lip to be made on the bottom of the fossil with the plaster jacket, ensuring that the entire piece of rock (fossil included) leaves the excavation pit when you flip the jacket over. I've heard horror stories of jacket flipping where a stream of bone fragments pours out of the bottom of the jacket upon removal, and fortunately, this has never really happened to me. On larger specimens such as this, it is routine to dig a tunnel underneath part of it, to ensure that the jacket removes a cohesive block rather than half of it. So, I started doing this, digging from both sides, and after about an hour or so I had a cute tunnel underneath the skull where some strips of burlap could go when it came time to jacketing.

The fossil with dampened paper towel and after application of the jacket.

Late in the day on friday, we finally got to the jacketing process. In all honesty, I had not expected to get to start the jacket until saturday morning - we had scheduled a State Parks ranger to drive by on Sunday at 3pm for jacket pick up, so we knew we had until then. We finished up the plaster jacket right before dinner time.

The jacket right after flipping it.

On saturday morning, we quickly moved to undercut the rest of the jacket, "pop" it, and flip it over. This was particularly hairy, because there wasn't exactly any room to flip the jacket - usually you flip the jacket over, and have ample space to let it rotate along whatever surface you have available, which in paleontology fieldwork, is usually the ground. In our case, sure -we had opened up a large shelf we had dug out, but the fossil was already precariously positioned above a ten foot drop to the beach, more than enough distance for the fossil to break into many pieces if it were to fall. More importantly, if the jacket were to fall off the ledge, it would likely take one of us with it, which would really, really hurt. It would have really helped to have a third person, but we were barely able to lift and flip it between the two of us - we had to lift it and slowly rotate it nearly in place, move it to the side while lifting it, and while Des stayed there holding the jacket up from certain destruction, I ran up and down fetching pieces of wood to wedge it so it wouldn't fall off the ledge. During flipping, some of the fractures inside the concretion opened up, and we could feel the block 'flexing' a little bit. Fortunately, it all stayed together. Unfortunately, there were more bones going back into the cliff, which we will not be able to dig out. There was also a small part of the concretion and a possible bit of the skull left in the cliff, which we will have to return for.

The jacket after the bottom jacket was completed.

Wooden "backbone" for the sand ramp.

After flipping the jacket over, we were able to put on a plaster jacket over the bottom part of the block. Now that the jacket was completed, we had the problem of getting it down. The block appeared to weigh at least three hundred pounds, and was very heavy due to the concretion inside. There was no safe way to lift the skull down - the heaviest of a jacket that two people of my diminutive stature can manage is about 100 lbs (my friend Chris Pirrone and I once spent four hours moving a 100 lb jacket only 200 feet along a Santa Cruz cliff, while partially submerged at first, then up algae covered rocks, and along a 10 foot high, one foot wide ledge over the ocean, and up several eye-level ledges).

One thing I enjoy about paleontology fieldwork is thinking outside the box. I've had conversations with people who would have used some high-tech rope and pulley system which would have probably been a pain to put together and utilize. In my experience, when moving big (but manageable) pieces of rock, it's best to use methods developed by the masters of lugging around big rocks: the ancient Egyptians. Although it was up rather high, I thought "why not just build a big ramp?". To make it faster, we piled up a bunch of logs: sand usually moves to the angle of repose, and we needed something steeper (so we wouldn't end up with a cone of sand with a twenty foot wide imprint). The logs trapped the sand, and we were able to build a steeper ramp.

My wife with the beginning of the sand ramp, pretending it was her idea.

Des, myself, Ash Poust, and Liz Ferrer (clockwise, from upper left) start to
maneuver the block down the incline.

My wife (left, in red), Liz Ferrer (hiding in back), and Ash (white pants)
excavate a bit of the remaining concretion.

It only took us about a half hour to finish the ramp, and once we were done, we climbed up, and started to nudge the plaster jacket. Our friend Ash Poust, who was a friend of ours from MSU and now one of Kevin Padian's Ph.D. students at UC Berkeley, had brought along another one of Padian's students, Liz Ferrer, to help out. My wife sat out on this one, and took photos instead, while the rest of us muscled the jacket down. It worked like a charm, and I could not have been happier with my experiment in 'ancient methods'.

Stay tuned for the next installment!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

New mysticete excavation, part 1

Note: I feel like I've been doing this a lot recently, but sorry for the long lapse in posts. I just got back from SVP a week ago, and I've been sick during most of the intervening time. Before SVP, I was working like a fiend trying to get work done for a couple of presentations at SVP, and doing even more fieldwork in Marin County. I'll get some more blog work done now that things have calmed down.

Last August I had the fortune of excavating a Pliocene mysticete skull from one of my fossil localities in the Purisima Formation. I actually discovered this skull back in 2005, but had already found another that I preferred to excavate instead. I went ahead and excavated that other specimen instead, and left this one here. There were several reasons why I left this one alone. First, the other specimen was much closer to where we could park, whereas it was a mile walk to the skull featured below. Secondly, I only had the funds (and space in my small car) for one large plaster jacket, so this one had to wait.
The skull as it appeared prior to excavation, and in a basically identical
state at the time of discovery in 2005.

My permit for the locality was good for another year, so why didn't I collect it in 2006? Well, I was still preparing the 2005 whale (which I would be preparing for another four more years), and there wasn't lab space available for it. So my 2006 permit expired, and I didn't get another one until last fall. To be honest, I hadn't intended on collecting it this year either because I had no funding, no crew, and no vehicle to remove it with. One day a well known "personality" posted a question about fossil whales in concretions on the shores of some of the Channel Islands, and he was legitimately surprised by how many whales there are out there languishing, despite the number of able bodied vertebrate paleontologists in southern CA. I went on a bit of a rant and explained that it's the rule rather than the exception with regards to California fossil whales: there are uncollected bones and concretions littering Northern and Central California beaches, just asking to be put into a museum. I didn't think much of my email, until I got an email from Dr. Desmond Maxwell at University of the Pacific in Stockton, who explained that he had grown tired of taking his field crews all the way to Utah and Montana, and wanted some local prospects, and that he had plenty of funding, volunteers, and lab space for large marine mammal fossils. I gladly took him up on his offer, and this whale excavation was the "maiden voyage" of our field/lab collaboration.

The fossil, with estwing superpick for scale.

We arrived on the Thursday of the last week of August, with the intention of spending four days on the excavation. I met Des early in the morning at his hotel, and we drove out to the coast. The first day felt like two, both in terms of how much rock we went through and how long it was. The skull was in a concretion about ten feet up off the sand, and fortunately, had not been eroded at all since I found it in 2005 - at this locality, erosion is particularly slow, and the cliff erodes inch by inch, instead of being cut at the base and having blocks fall down, like at Capitola. Fossils that are over ten feet above the base of the cliff erode very slowly - a large baleen whale vertebra at another locality had the tip of its neural arch exposed in summer 2004, and as of October 2011, one half of the ventral side of the centrum is left (body of the vertebra).

Footholds cut into place for the excavation.

The first order of business was to cut footholds and ledges for us to stand on. Unlike the 2005 baleen whale excavation, the sandstone was very soft and friable; its height above the base of the cliff meant it spends more time out of the year being weathered and not waterlogged by high tides one half of the year. This made the excavation on the first day go remarkably fast.

Initial excavation of the skull, and cleaning of the exposed surfaces.

There were also several plants growing in the concretion, which we quickly plucked and removed. Fortunately, the roots did not penetrate the bone and destroy it, which has happened in some cases. After some early cleaning, it was apparent that the concretion was very thin over some parts of the skull, which would make life considerably easier than the previously excavated whale from this locality.

Des excavating the mysticete skull.

What exactly was it? It's convenient to just throw around the term 'whale' because it's huge, and you're not really quite sure. Well, initially I identified it as a right whale (balaenid), because I thought that the skull shape was consistent with that - wide braincase with a supraoccipital shield that did not extend very far forward. A few weeks later, I looked at more pictures of right whales, and I'm no longer too convinced my ID was accurate by any stretch of the imagination. Right whales have 'backswept' squamosals, and whatever this thing is, it's squamosals (it is sadly missing the lateral extremities of them) are relatively close to the vertex (top of the skull). More likely, it is a primitive balaenopterid with a short supraoccipital shield: the squamosals of balaenopterids are closer to the vertex than in balaenids, and are oriented laterally (not posterolaterally). Another possibility is that it could belong to a balaenopterid-like gray whale, which is known from the Pliocene San Diego Formation.

The skull after the first day of work. Not much appears obvious, but I'll talk more about it in the next installment.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Update: The coastal paleontologist gets married, and goes down under?

The last couple of weeks have been pretty great, and due to being so busy in relation to recent events, I've been a little slow on posting new material on here. First and foremost, I got married to my longtime girlfriend/fiancee Sarah Michalies on September 17 up at beautiful Lake Tahoe, California. The wedding was fantastic, and a lot of fun - and there were many paleontology students from around North America in attendance. Sarah and I have been together since spring 2005, and it was about time to tie the knot. Sarah and I met as undergraduates in the paleontology program at Montana State University, and have gone on all sorts of paleo field trips together.

This is not our boat, we just borrowed it for cool pictures.

The second awesome thing that happened - I was recently (i.e. on Thursday) accepted into the Doctoral program at the University of Otago in New Zealand. I applied back in late July, and the plan is to start in January. I have the fantastic opportunity to work with Dr. R. Ewan Fordyce, who has offered me a chance to study eomysticetid fossils from the south island of New Zealand. Eomysticetids are a thus far poorly known group of early baleen whales, and constitute the earliest known and earliest diverging toothless baleen whales. So far, the only eomysticetids that have been described include Eomysticetus whitmorei and Eomysticetus carolinensis from the Oligocene of South Carolina, described by Larry Barnes and Al Sanders in 2002 in the Clayton Ray memorial volume. However, in that same volume, Barnes and Sanders name another new family of early diverging mysticetes they term the Micromysticetidae; they remove Cetotheriopsis tobieni from said genus and place it in the new genus Micromysticetus, to which they also name a new species from South Carolina, Cetotheriopsis rothauseni. This family also includes the taxon Cetotheriopsis lintianus. Anyway, Micromysticetus has almost always occurred as a sister taxon to Eomysticetus wherever included in phylogenetic analyses, and I would not be surprised if the Eomysticetidae were to include these even smaller taxa.

The holotype skull of Eomysticetus whitmorei from South Carolina (borrowed from the morphobank account for Ekdale et al., 2011).

The new material from New Zealand includes a collection of eight partial and complete crania, many with dentaries, earbones, and postcrania. In addition, two species of Mauicetus may be referable to the Eomysticetidae, and part of this project will revolve around trying to ascertain whether any of these new specimens represents referable material of Mauicetus; the skulls of the two holotypes of two Mauicetus species (not including Mauicetus parki, which is not an eomysticetid) are very incomplete or have been lost, but are still known from some earbones and postcrania (and photos of the skulls). One of my tasks will almost certainly be to determine whether or not any of this new material could be designated as a neotype specimen.

The clocktower at University of Otago.

All of that interesting paleocetaceanology aside, Sarah and I are going to New Zealand!!! We'll be living in the city of Dunedin on the south island. Above you can see a photo of the clock tower at the university; the campus there looks absolutely beautiful. Granted, Traphagen Hall at MSU Bozeman is a neat old building (but totally shitty inside), but I've seen photos of the Geology Building at OU, and it looks just like another Tudor stone castle like the main building pictured above. It looks totally awesome. Furthermore, unlike my previous 8 years of schooling in Montana, it doesn't get anywhere near as cold on the south island (although Dunedin is about as far south as you can get on the south island). And lastly, there are penguins that live there! There are penguins that have rookeries on the Otago Peninsula, within a 30 minute drive from campus! Blue/Fairy penguins, the smallest known species of penguin!

This is going to be a blast, and I have a lot of work to do to get there.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

California shark teeth

Yesterday while doing fieldwork at one of my research localities, I spotted a beautiful shark tooth poking out of the cliff. Only a very tiny part of the serrated tooth blade could be seen, and initially I was unsure of how large it was. After a few minutes of chiseling, it was clear that this was a rather large specimen of the great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias, and upon removal, ended up being about 3 cm long - the second largest specimen I had collected from this locality. This was a good day, as I generally have only found about 3-4 of these teeth per year; they are not too hard to spot - in fact, they are fairly obvious due to the easy-to see enamel and serrations (unless a root lobe is all that is exposed). Altogether, I have collected perhaps 50 Carcharodon teeth from the Purisima Formation in total - they are relatively rare in comparison to marine mammal bones. And this is not for lack of trying: I've found that it generally takes about 3-4 trips to a given locality before I spot another specimen; whether this is due to examining exposures not covered by the previous trip, or erosion between trips, I'm not sure.
The Carcharodon carcharias tooth as found in the outcrop.

The prepared specimen.

I've found that shark teeth are nearly impossible to find during the summer months, and easy to find in the winter, when the cliffs are cleaned off by surf action. I rarely find teeth in the summer simply because I tend to pick the localities clean in the winter, and I have to wait until the erosion of the following winter to find anything. Shark teeth are so rare in west coast strata that it is not very fruitful to look for them on nearby beaches; indeed, I found one Carcharodon tooth in this manner, in 2006 - and I have not found another this way.

Certainly, the Purisima Formation is not the only shark-tooth yielding unit on the west coast. Two rock units that boast a healthy dose of shark teeth are the Sharktooth Hill Bonebed in the Round Mountain Silt near Bakersfield, one of the highest concentrations of fossil shark teeth in the world - and the Santa Margarita Sandstone near Santa Cruz. At both of these localities, one can find dozens of teeth with little work (Sharktooth Hill) or quite a bit of digging (Santa Margarita Sandstone). In high school, I played hooky one day and drove down to Santa Cruz, and spent 8 hours in a pit with a shovel and my screen, and collected 70 teeth - but only after ending up with enough screened sediment to fill a Volkswagen beetle.

Fossil mako teeth (Cosmopolitodus hastalis and Cosmopolitodus planus) from the Sharktooth Hill Bonebed, UCMP Collections (image borrowed from http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/).

In 2005, I was fortunate to contrast my west coast experience with that of Calvert Cliffs. I had three hours to check out the famous Brownie's Beach, where just looking through shelly debris on the beach, I found 80 shark teeth (mostly the reef shark Carcharinus), just on the surface of the beach, in an area smaller than one side of a tennis court. I've seen mason jars filled with shark teeth folks have scooped up from Florida beaches, and seen multitudes of shark teeth from the famous Lee Creek mine in North Carolina. Sure, there is plenty of lore and mysticism surrounding east coast shark teeth (and their collectors in particular!), but I have gotten the distinct impression that most shark-bearing strata on the west coast are depauperate compared to that on the east coast. Contrast nearly 100 teeth per 3 hours of work to 30 hours of work for one tooth, for example. Additionally, although I have not personally collected data on this, the obscene number of shark teeth from certain east coast units (i.e. 24,000 shark teeth from Calvert Cliffs from just 3 years of donations to the Calvert Marine Museum; Visaggi and Godfrey 2010) suggests that the ratio of sharks:marine mammals in the east coast is astronomically higher than in the Purisima Formation (which in my thesis, I determined it to be around 1:40) and other west coast units. How could this be?

A heap of shark teeth from Florida (image borrowed from www.sharkysshop.com).

A number of biological and taphonomic hypotheses can be made:
1) The fossil shark assemblages perhaps differ in their taxonomic composition, and perhaps there is some related preservation bias.
2) The western Atlantic had higher productivity and stronger upwelling in the Neogene, supporting a larger absolute population of sharks.
3) Sharks and marine mammals have a different preservation potential, which a large-scale taphonomic process could act upon.

Immediately dismissing out of hand absurd suggestions like fossil marine vertebrates were preserved differently along either coast or had different skeletal mineralogy between ocean basins, one can start to think about the above suggestions. For example, contrasting the Carcharodon carcharias-dominated shark assemblage of the Purisima Formation with that of the Calvert Formation which is dominated by carchariniforms like Carcharinus, Hemipristis, and Galeocerdo, this suggestion seems to have some merit. However, there is little difference in preservation potential between these different types of sharks, aside from differences in size. In general, marine vertebrate assemblages in bonebeds and the like are very poorly sorted, and all shark teeth are relatively small in comparison, to say, a whale jaw.

The second suggestion has some merit: the old skeletal supply v. concentration idea discussed by Susan Kidwell back in her 1985 paper (although she was talking about mollusks). She argued that skeletal concentrations are usually caused by changes in sedimentation rate - a slowdown in the rate of sedimentation eliminates the diluting effect on bioclasts, allowing them to form a shell or bonebed (or even just a zone where they are slightly more abundant). Kidwell also argued that computer modelling she used demonstrated that her concentration model still worked even when the skeletal supply rate changed. Is it reasonable to assume that the populations of organisms have not changed through time? Of course not. Can we, from a uniformitarian standpoint, work with this in mind? Using Kidwell's model, perhaps - perhaps not. This being said, I'm not sure that more teeth = more sharks. This is a relatively simplistic view of the fossil record, and in the past, interpreting the paleoecology of fossil organisms has been fraught with problems (usually of the taphonomic kind). Sharks aren't the only organisms who would enjoy higher productivity - you'd expect marine mammals to be going bat-shit crazy with all the extra fish, krill, etc. to feed on as well (and eventually dying, shedding their hard parts onto the seafloor as well along with shark teeth).
The sedimentologic fossil concentration model proposed by Kidwell (1985).

What about the third suggestion? Sharks and marine mammals clearly have different skeletal anatomy, and although some elasmobranchs have been found with preserved skeletal elements (including skates from the Purisima Formation - stay tuned!), all that typically preserve are teeth, and occasionally, dermal denticles. Marine mammals have teeth, skulls, earbones, and postcrania that get preserved frequently. Teeth are harder than bones, and probably have a higher preservation potential with respect to purely physical taphonomic processes (i.e. abrasion from winnowing, erosion, and transport). In fact, my data from my master's thesis indicate that shark teeth are less commonly abraded or fragmented relative to marine mammal bones, and therefore it is probably kosher to say they have a higher preservation potential.

Okay, so what? There is clearly some differential preservation potential. But the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are big places: any specific sedimentological process (i.e. bonebed formation) is going to vary along hundreds of miles of the continental shelf, and through geologic time, and it may be difficult to pinpoint one single phenomenon responsible. In fact, to really examine this, we have to zoom way far out, to the basin level. What is the single most obvious difference between Neogene strata of the east coast and the west coast? Again we turn back to the work of Susan Kidwell (1993). In general, because the east coast is a passive continental margin, most of the strata (i.e. Calvert Fm., Pungo Ls., Yorktown Fm., Bone Valley Fm.) are deposited in low subsidence settings ('low' sensu Kidwell, 1993). Most of the strata on the west coast, including the Purisima Fm., are deposited in smaller basins undergoing "wrench" tectonics (i.e. pull-apart basins) or even rifting (Imperial Group, southern California), which Kidwell (1993) classified as medium-high subsidence basins; most basins in California probably qualify under this category (and could be determined via deposition 'rates' and basin thickness/depth).

The concept of supply versus concentration in Kidwell's model can be extrapolated to an entire basin: basin subsidence controls the sedimentation rate, and instead of looking at the microanatomy of a single shellbed, the types of fossil concentrations and their thicknesses and lateral extent can be compared between formations and basins. Just like a longer pause in sedimentation may form thicker shell bed, a formation deposited under lower rates of sedimentation will result in more numerous, thicker, and more architecturally complex shell concentrations. The Calvert Formation in particular was Kidwell's example of a low-subsidence setting. In general, Neogene marine strata of the west coast in general have less numerous and thinner shell concentrations, a general proxy for the sedimentation rate.

A taphonomic process of this magnitude can then be imparted upon a given example of differential preservation: at the end of this, the generally lower sedimentation rate of the western Atlantic resulted in higher amounts of taphonomic damage, more widespread and longer-duration hiatuses/bonebeds, and could have effectively acted as a taphonomic "wedge". By wedge, I am referring to the eventual difference in the preserved abundances of shark teeth and marine mammal bones. Marine mammal bones, with their relatively lower preservation potential, perhaps lost out due to their greater susceptibility to damage by abrasion and fragmentation.

References Cited

Kidwell, S. M. 1985. Paleobiological and sedimentological implications of fossil
concentrations. Nature 318:457-460.

Kidwell, S. M. 1993. Influence of subsidence on the anatomy of marine siliciclastic
sequences and on the distribution of shell and bone beds. Journal of the Geological
Society, London 150:165-167.

Visaggi, C.C. and S.J. Godfrey. 2010. Variation in Composition and Abundance of Miocene Shark Teeth from Calvert Cliffs, Maryland. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30:1:26-35.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Getting material curated at UCMP

On my last visit to UCMP, I spent an hour with a student volunteer and my good friend Ash Poust placing some material I had donated last year into specimen trays. These are all specimens collected from a locality in the Purisima Formation I studied as an undergraduate student. Most of this material was collected in 2005 and 2006, and I slowly curated and prepared it during my undergraduate career (and during grad school). I've now gotten about 1/2 of this collection to UCMP, and already it fills a drawer and a half.
Which is bad (and good). It's bad because the entire collection from this locality will take up half a cabinet by itself, not including the large oversize material. What's worse is that this material is roughly 1/3 of my entire collection - I have material I've collected from other Purisima localities, as well as the Santa Margarita Sandstone. All in all, my collection will probably require two-three cabinets at UCMP. Keep in mind I've already donated about 1/10 of my collection to the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

Shark teeth and bird bones from the Purisima Formation.

That being said, it was a very satisfying experience to see all this material finally looking like it was part of a museum collection. I'm more motivated than ever to get the rest of it curated (and out of my house!). Now that I'm writing up the marine mammal assemblage from this locality, I can finally get rid of it all and get it into a proper museum setting.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Help preserve the Sharktooth Hill Bonebed

Hey Folks,

This web page was posted several months ago, but to anyone who is interested, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is trying to raise money to purchase the Sharktooth Hill locality for posterity.

To those unaware, the venerated Bob Ernst (who formerly owned the property) passed away several years ago. Unbeknownst to many, the vast collections at the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History made from Sharktooth Hill were not an actual museum collection, but Ernst's private collection on display, and passed on to his widow. When she began having financial problems, she began to sell and auction off the collection, including many specimens which have now been published in peer-reviewed articles (a big, big, BIG screw up on the part of certain researchers). This is really bad, because unless these specimens are donated to collections of real museums - that work is effectively rendered untestable.

That being said, here is the page, posted by Don Prothero and Teresa LaVelle:


A personal tour of the Sharktooth Hill locality will be given by the museum director, John Long, for donations of over 2000$.

Unfortunately, I'm still relatively poor, as a student, and anything I could scrounge together would barely amount to a drop in the bucket - however, I can help out by posting it here, and hoping that this message can get spread a little further. This is probably the most spectacular marine vertebrate fossil site in western North America, and so many problems could be solved for Mrs. Ernst and marine mammal paleontologists if this money were raised.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A new specimen of Parapontoporia

Last fall I made a couple posts detailing an excavation (here and here) of a new odontocete skull from a relatively young (middle-late Pliocene) horizon in the Purisima Formation. This specimen was collected over a six hour period, and the excavation was pulled off and completed just before sunset. The specimen is still not completely prepared, but it does include a complete braincase, the posterior half of the rostrum, both petrotympanics (articulated petrosal and tympanics), and part of one of the lower jaws.

The new skull of Parapontoporia sternbergi in oblique dorsolateral view; bottom photo is labeled.

Three species of Parapontoporia have been described: Parapontoporia pacifica, from the late Miocene Almejas Formation in Baja California, Parapontoporia sternbergi, from the Pliocene San Diego Formation, the Mio-Pliocene San Mateo Formation, and possibly from the Pliocene Wilson Grove Formation, and of course, Parapontoporia wilsoni from the Mio-Pliocene Purisima Formation. Most of the Purisima material is referable to P. wilsoni, which is characterized by a very deep "basin" at the base of the rostrum (shown poorly in the photo below) and by a facial region that is longer than it is wide. P. sternbergi has a shallower basin, and has a facial region wider than it is long (and also appears to me to be smaller in general; P. wilsoni crania can be up to 20% larger than those of P. sternbergi). P. pacifica is not known from a complete braincase, and it has a flat base of the rostrum (i.e. no rostral basin). The new specimen exhibits a shallow rostral basin, and has a braincase that is wider than long, and is damn tiny - all suggesting that it is assignable to Parapontoporia sternbergi rather than P. wilsoni. "But the Purisima Fm. species is Parapontoporia wilsoni!", you might say. Just like modern cetaceans, fossil cetaceans likely had a cosmopolitan distribution - and Parapontoporia sternbergi is primarily known from late Pliocene rocks (specimens identified as P. sternbergi from Miocene strata should probably instead be called Parapontoporia sp.). The type locality of P. wilsoni is about 5.3 Ma, slightly older than the San Diego Fm. Likewise, the new specimen from the Purisima is from a horizon about 10 meters below an ash bed dated at 3.35 Ma, and therefore probably late Pliocene also.

Parapontoporia sternbergi, the most completely known species within Parapontoporia, exhibits an extremely elongate rostrum, filled with about 80 teeth per quadrant; that's a total of 320 teeth. I don't know the specifics for other toothy odontocetes (such as Eurhinodelphinids), but this strikes me as being a terrifyingly large number of teeth for a mammal, and I would not be surprised if Parapontoporia was the toothiest of all mammals. Additionally, the skull of parapontoporia is asymmetrical, unlike Pontoporia and more like the now extinct chinese river dolphin Lipotes. Parapontoporia was obviously named because it is closely related to the La Plata River Dolphin, Pontoporia, right? Right? Believe it or not, this new specimen weighs in on the phylogenetic relationships of Parapontoporia.

A reconstruction of a nearly complete skull from the San Diego Formation referred to Parapontoporia sternbergi by Barnes (1985).

The holotype of Parapontoporia wilsoni from the Purisima Formation.

When Larry Barnes published is major study of Parapontoporia in 1985 (the year I was born...), there were no skulls of Parapontoporia with associated earbones. Because of the similarity of Parapontoporia to modern river dolphins like Pontoporia and Lipotes, he looked through museum collections and tried to identify possible petrosals that could be referred to this new taxon. Oddly enough, one set of six petrosals from the San Diego Formation appeared very similar to modern Lipotes, although Barnes felt that the skull was more similar to Pontoporia.

Isolated petrosals from the San Diego Formation referred to Parapontoporia sternbergi by Barnes (1985).

Because of this discrepancy, there has been some disagreement (not in the published literature - in discussion only) about what the real petrosal of Parapontoporia looks like. At a UCMP visit once, Nick Pyenson showed me another petrosal which he felt might be a better match than the ones Barnes referred. This is a fairly serious matter, because these isolated petrosals have been used in various cladistic analyses to fill in the data matrix - and given the key phylogenetic position of Parapontoporia as a sister taxon to Delphinoidea - means that if the petrosals are not in fact from Parapontporia, there could be some serious errors in previously phylogenetic studies.

The petrotympanic complexes of the new Purisima Formation specimen of Parapontoporia sternbergi in dorsal/cerebral aspect.

The petrotympanic complexes in (near) ventral aspect.

This specimen is the first skull of Parapontoporia with well-preserved petrotympanic complexes associated with it. These petrosals are identical to those referred to this taxon by Barnes (1985), and confirm his referral. Interestingly, this also confirms the Lipotes-like morphology of the earbones. Previous cladistic analyses (e.g. Muizon 1988) have resulted in Parapontoporia being the sister taxon to Lipotes rather than Pontoporia, and several authors have suggested such a relationship, despite the hand-drawn cladogram and assertions of Barnes (1985). This new find indicates the Lipotes-like ear morphology does belong to Parapontoporia.

Petrosals of A) Inia, B) Pontoporia, and C) Lipotes.

Another Purisima Fm. skull of Parapontoporia wilsoni with a petrotympanic complex, in a private collection.

I'd be lying if I said that this were the first specimen ever found with petrosals and tympanics; two other specimens are known. One is a specimen of Parapontoporia pacifica from the Capistrano Formation at the San Diego Natural History Museum, which has a crushed tympanic and petrosal. The other specimen is also from the Purisima Formation, shown above, but has been unavailable for study. The petrosal is barely exposed and stuck within the concretion. This specimen remains in a private collection. This no longer bothers me, as the new specimen has both petrotympanics fully freed from the skull, and one of which has already been CT-scanned at UT Austin for a study by Manuel Martinez and Jonathan Geisler (among other authors, which I am dead last for this minor contribution). Look out for it at SVP!

References and further reading:

BARNES, L. G. 1984. Fossil odontocetes (Mammalia: Cetacea) from the Almejas Formation,
Isla Cedros, Mexico. Paleobios 42:1–46.

BARNES, L. G. 1985. Fossil pontoporiid dolphins (Mammalia: Cetacea) from the Pacific coast
of North America. Contributions in Science, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
County 363:1–34.

FORDYCE, E., AND C. DE MUIZON. 2001. Evolutionary history of cetaceans: a review. Pages
169–233 in J. -M. Mazin and V. de Buffrenil, eds. Secondary adaptation of tetrapods to
life in water. Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil, Munich, Germany.

GEISLER, J. H., AND A. E. SANDERS. 2003. Morphological evidence for the phylogeny of
Cetacea. Journal of Mammalian Evolution 10:23–129.

MUIZON, C. de. 1988. Les relations phylog`en´etiques des Delphinida (Cetacea, Mammalia).
Annales de Paleontologie 74:159–227.

PYENSON, N. D. 2009. Requiem for Lipotes. Marine Mammal Science 25:714-724.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Recent fieldwork in the Purisima Formation, Part 3: mysticete earbones and wildlife

Hey Folks,

Sorry for yet another delay - I've been pretty busy, working on several manuscripts (a thesis-length paper on the Purisima Formation marine mammals from my undergraduate field area in Halfmoon Bay, a new manuscript on shark bitten cetacean bones, and my contribution to a paper of the mollusk and vertebrate assemblage of a late Miocene marine locality in Sonoma County), applying to the University of Otago Doctoral Program to work with R. Ewan Fordyce (in New Zealand), and digging up a new right whale fossil from the Purisima Formation. There are plenty of topics I have thought of to write about on here, but not enough time!

Continuing on with my series of posts about recent Purisima Fm. fieldwork with Dick Hilton, I've written a little about a new mysticete earbone. There are lots of mysticete earbones from the Purisima Fm., from number of different taxa, including cetotheriids, many balaenopterids, and balaenids. Dick had originally spotted this specimen during a field trip earlier in the spring, but was unable to collect it. On our first day of our expedition back in late May, we spotted it easily, and given the easier tides, we were able to quickly excavate it. I was immediately struck with the size of the specimen, and in particular a large knob called the dorsal posterior prominence. This very distinctive earbone morphology is characteristic of the extinct rorqual "Megaptera" miocaena, which Remington Kellogg described in the 1920's from the late Miocene Sisquoc Formation of southern California. Several authors including Deméré et al. (2005) and Dooley et al. (2004) have suggested that it does not belong in Megaptera at all, and that it requires a new genus to be erected. However, it has appeared in some phylogenetic analyses (Bisconti, 2008; Marx, 2010) as a sister taxon to modern Megaptera novaeangliae (the modern Humpback Whale for the uninitiated). It really needs to be reanalyzed and probably redescribed.

Fossil tympanics of "Megaptera" miocaena from the upper Miocene San Mateo Formation (left) and Purisima Formation (right).

Fossils of this taxon are now known from Tortonian and Messinian (6-11 Million Years Old) strata in California, including the Sisquoc Formation, Purisima Formation (two localities), and the Santa Margarita Sandstone (a new specimen of which will soon be donated to UCMP). Other vertebrates from this time period include the dusignathine walruses Pontolis and Gomphotaria, the odontocetes Denebola, Parapontoporia, Albireo, and Piscolithax, as well as other mysticetes such as Nannocetus and Herpetocetus; all of these taxa are now known from multiple strata of this age, suggesting a distinct, and well-represented late Miocene marine mammal fauna from the eastern North Pacific.

Lastly, we spotted some wildlife during the trip, the photos of which are below.

Northern elephant seals spotted from the point.

A peregrine falcon near a nest at the edge of a cliff.

A coyote that ran along the beach while we stopped for a snack.


Bisconti, M. 2008. Morphology and phylogenetic relationships of a new eschrichtiid genus (Cetacea: Mysticeti) from the Early Pliocene of northern Italy. Biol J Linn Soc 153: 161–186.

Deméré, T.A., A. Berta, and M.R. McGowan. 2005. The taxonomic and evolutionary history of fossil and modern balaenopteroid mysticetes. Journal of Mammalian Evolution 12:99–143.

Dooley, A. C., Jr., Fraser, N. C., and Luo, Z.-X. 2004. The earliest known member of the rorqual-gray whale clade (Mammalia, Cetacea). J. Vertebr. Paleontol. 24: 453–463.

Kellogg, R. 1922. Description of the skull of Megaptera miocaena, a fossil humpback whale from the Miocene diatomaceous earth of Lompoc, California. Proc. US Natl. Mus. 61: 1–18.

Marx, F. G. 2010. The more the merrier? A large cladistic analysis of mysticetes,
and comments on the transition from teeth to baleen. J Mammal Evol 18:

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Recent fieldwork in the Purisima Formation, Part 2: a possible new species of Herpetocetus?

Back in late May, Dick Hilton (Sierra College) and I did a three day field trip collecting fossil vertebrates from a locality in the Purisima Formation I recently got a permit for. On the second day, excavated a large block of sediment with what I assumed at the time were sirenian bones. I had not seen the bones except in cross section, and because they were somewhat dense, I thought they might be from a sea cow. We quickly carved out a large block, and due to the cohesive nature of the sediment, we were able to wrap it in tinfoil and duct tape. It was one of the first finds of the day, and I thought there could definitely be something neat inside. Because we were only a half mile from the cars, I left my pack with Dick and hoofed it back to the car with the thirty pound block, and also to grab some gatorade I had left in my car. When I returned, Dick was taking a siesta, and after some lunch, we headed further down the beach. Only a few hundred feet down I spotted a distinctly potato-shaped thing sticking out next to a piece of bone: it rather looked to me like a tympanic bulla, and I climbed up a bit to check it out. It was in fact a tympanic, and when the rest of the piece came out, I was able to see that it was in fact a nearly complete squamosal, complete with the bulla and posterior process of the petrosal. Dick and I thought the trip had been a success just because of this specimen, especially because it was from a section of cliffs where neither of us expected to find anything.

Dick Hilton digging up a huge baleen whale tympanic.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Unfortunately, I didn't know that I was until after the SATLW (Aquatic Tetrapods) conference. I did have a day or two before the conference to prepare the squamosal, and it did indeed have a plug-shaped posterior process of the petrosal, indicating it belonged to the Herpetocetinae, which includes Herpetocetus, Nannocetus, (probably) Piscobalaena, and Cephalotropis (according to Steeman, 2007). After the conference, I opened up the duct taped jacket and began preparation. After a couple hours the exposed pieces were still not making sense, and then I found a couple of bones that looked like they were adjacent to one another. When I removed them, there was a tiny neck of bone connecting them – and after a little more preparation, I realized it was a Herpetocetus petrosal and posterior process. Damnit, another goddamn Herpetocetus.

The petrosal and posterior process of the new specimen, with the facial nerve canal labeled. Upper left is ventral, lower left is dorsal, and right is medial view.

The skull with (partially incorrectly) articulated petrosal of the new skull in dorsal (top) and ventral (bottom) views.

Once I had enough of the block prepared, I realized I had quite a bit of the ventral portion of a small braincase preserved. It includes both exoccipitals, one occipital condyle, the basioccipital, the right squamosal, and the complete petrosal. After preparation, the petrosal is most similar to petrosals of Herpetocetus. This may be a bit technical, but herpetocetine baleen whales have several peculiar features that define them as a group. The posterior process of the petrosal – which is typically an elongate strap of bone that connects with the skull posteriorly – is very short and plug-shaped in these animals. Additionally, the posterior process (which is rarely found attached in isolated fossil mysticete petrosals) is flat and contributes to the lateral side of the skull, instead of being 'hidden' in a trench between the squamosal and exoccipital bones. Secondly, some herpetocetines have a flattened anterior process that is blade shaped; this structure is typically conical and robust or knoblike in most other mysticetes. Clearly, this specimen exhibits both of these features. Additionally, Herpetocetus spp. exhibit a large triangular flange on the side of the bone, which overhangs the squamosal – also present in this specimen. Additionally, herpetocetines all have extremely small earbones relative to most mysticetes. Unfortunately, the neck of the posterior process appears to have been deformed slightly, and when the main portion is articulated correctly, the posterior process sits in its trough a little wonky, and when the posterior process is articulated correctly, the main portion doesn't articulate well.

The posterior process, squamosal, and tympanic of Herpetocetus bramblei.

The two alternate articulations of the petrosal showing correct articulation of the posterior process (left) and correct articulation of the body of the petrosal (right).

The temporal region of the skull of Herpetocetus bramblei with the petrosal outlined in red.

However – it shows several features that differentiate it from all species of Herpetocetus as well as other herpetocetines like Nannocetus and Piscobalaena. Firstly, the anterior process is medially oriented – it is usually anteriorly facing instead. Second, the posterior process is very transversely narrow and elongate – it is typically more nearly circular in other species. Lastly, the most bizarre feature is that it has a very long anterior fissure of the facial nerve canal which is contorted into an S-shape – something I have not seen in any mysticete, fossil or modern.

Various mysticete petrosals in ventral view, showing two fossil rorquals (Plesiobalaenoptera and Balaenoptera sursiplana), a modern balaenid (Eubalaena japonica), the new specimen, and two other Herpetocetus specimens.

This is pretty exciting, and I am looking forward to preparing the other specimen, which includes part of a squamosal and a tympanic, and most likely a petrosal. It should not be too difficult to get these specimens written up and described.

Further Reading

Geisler, J. H. & Luo, Z.-X. 1996. The petrosal and inner ear of Herpetocetus sp. (Mammalia: Cetacea) and their implications for the phylogeny and hearing of archaic mysticetes. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 70, 1045–1066.

Steeman, M.E. 2007. Cladistic analysis and a revised classification of fossil and recent mysticetes. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 150:875–894.

Steeman, M.E. 2010. The extinct baleen whale fauna from the Miocene-Pliocene of Belgium and the diagnostic cetacean ear bones. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 8:63-80.

Whitmore, F.C., and L.G. Barnes. 2008. The Herpetocetinae, a new subfamily of extinct baleen whales (Mammalia, Cetacea, Cetotheriidae). In C.E. Ray, D.J. Bohaska, I.A. Koretsky, L.W. Ward, and L.G. Barnes (eds.). Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, IV. Virginia Museum of Natural History Special Publication 14:141–180.