Sunday, March 17, 2013

Oregon coast trip with Ray Troll and Kirk Johnson, part 2: fossil localities of the Newport Embayment

We got up early the following morning to prepare for a long day of field work. We had some ambitious plans: we were to check out three of Doug Emlong’s fossil localities, all in one day. This included an area south of Depoe Bay, and the well-known Moloch (pronounced Moolack) Beach north of the Newport Lighthouse. These localities are all exposures of various units deposited within the mid-Cenozoic Newport embayment, an ancient basin that occupied what is now the central Oregon coastline, from Waldport to Lincoln City (or further; I’m unclear as to the limits of the depositional package, but it certainly does not continue to Astoria, as mid-cenozoic rocks in this region are considered part of the Astoria embayment). Marine rocks in coastal Oregon have yielded a substantial assemblage of fossil marine mammals, among other marine (and terrestrial vertebrates). Indeed, we owe much of our knowledge of marine vertebrates from this time and place to the dogged perseverance (if not outright obsession or addiction) of Emlong, and other collectors who followed him like Guy Pierson and James and Gail Goedert. The three formations we visited were the ‘middle’ Oligocene Yaquina Formation, the late Oligocene-early Miocene Nye Mudstone, and the late early-early middle Miocene Astoria Formation. FYI, some paleontologists – myself included prior to this trip – assume that it’s Spanish in origin and pronounced “Yakeena”. Turns out it’s pronounced “Yakwinna”, and it’s named after the nearly extinct Yaquina Indians; an alternate spelling of their language is actually Yakwina. Anyway, now you know. There’s a Yaquina bay, Yaquina Formation, and the Yaquina lighthouse.

Ray and I discuss the finer points of desmostylian posture while Kirk does something practical.

Ray and I are still discussing desmostylian posture while waiting for a table at the Otis Cafe.

The spouting horn at Depoe bay, Oregon. We stopped to check this out on our way to the localities.

Before we left for the field, we drove from the Sitka Center to the local favorite ‘Otis Café’. Over an enormous breakfast consisting of the world’s best fench toast and bacon, Ray, Kirk, Sarah, and I discussed the intricacies of reconstructing the posture of desmostylians. Frank Boyden joined us a little late for breakfast. On a whim, Kirk asked the waitress if she knew who Emlong was – and as it turned out, her sister had been a girlfriend of Emlong’s. Apparently, he had asked her out after high school, and she wasn’t interested. He tried again after he got his first payment for his Smithsonian collecting job (which he started in 1967), and bought a car – and then she went out with him. I made sure to buy a T-shirt from the establishment before we left Lincoln County.

Kirk and I put together a plan for the day at our first stop.

Although we didn't find any fossils, a walk on the beach is likely to turn up all sorts of evidence of modern dead critters - a tufted puffin carcass, in this case. We spotted about a dozen seabird carcasses, including several puffins (Fratercula), murres (Uria), and cormorants (Phalacrocorax). 

Kirk has a habit of scampering up the nearest promontory.

Another puffin.

Our first stop was the Yaquina Formation. Emlong collected a number of significant fossils from the Yaquina – by far the most important of which is the type and only known specimen of the toothed mysticete Aetiocetus cotylalveus (not cotylaveus). The holotype skeleton was collected by Emlong in March 1964, and includes a well preserved skull, most of a vertebral column (39 vertebrae), 23 ribs, several loose teeth, part of a sternum, and several chevrons. Emlong originally considered it to be an archaeocete, given the presence of teeth and the lack of derived mysticete features. The remarkable thing is that Emlong, with zero technical background in paleontology – with encouragement from J. Arnold Shotwell and Remington Kellogg – described and named the fossil himself, in his only publication – less than two years after the fossil was dug out of the rock on the beach. It was later identified by Leigh Van Valen as a primitive baleen whale (but I’ll talk about that in a separate post). Other finds from the Yaquina Formation included the holotype of the primitive desmostylian Behemotops emlongi, named after Emlong (later synonymized with Behemotops proteus from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington; this taxon is sort of the “Pakicetus” of desmostylians), and skulls and mandibles of the more derived desmostylian (with a fabulous name) Cornwallius sookensis, which were eventually described by my good friend and colleage Brian Beatty (the species was originally named from the Sooke Formation on Vancouver Island, British Columbia). Lastly, the early pinniped Enaliarctos tedfordi was described from this locality by Annalisa Berta in 1991. Emlong collected the holotype of this specimen – a complete skull – in 1964. We looked around for about a half hour, and didn’t find a damn thing. Then again, the sand level was pretty high.

Sarah at Moloch Beach with the Astoria Formation in the background.

We moved to the next locality, a couple miles north – to examine additional outcrops of the Yaquina Formation and the late Oligocene-early Miocene Nye Mudstone. This was near the type locality of Enaliarctos mitchelli, which is from right around the Oligo-Miocene boundary. There was plenty of fossilized wood – probably limonitized or mildly pyritized, as indicated in Emlong’s paper. That’s about all that we found in either the Yaquina or the Nye, though. Despite a long history of important fossil discoveries from this locality, I was beginning to get disappointed with how poorly fossiliferous the localities were – I’m used to fossil localities in central California where literally hundreds of bones, teeth, and bone fragments are found for every skull that is recovered – and on a single trip, a hundred vertebrate fossils can be found after less than an hour of looking. We had visited two localities that had yielded several holotype specimens each, and not found a shred of bone.

 Sarah wading through a field of mostly unfossilferous boulders.

 Kirk attempting to crack a concretion the old fashioned way.

We left, hoping that a trip to Moloch beach would prove to yield some better vertebrate material. Moloch beach has an extensive exposure of the early middle Miocene Astoria Formation – which yielded one of the earliest discovered fossil marine mammals from the west coast – Desmatophoca oregonensis, an earlier relative of the large sea-lion like phocoid Allodesmus kernensis. Later, Remington Kellogg and Earl Packard described a new type of baleen whale from Moloch beach, which they named Cophocetus oregonensis. Later, several new pinnipeds were described from the Astoria Formation by Larry Barnes and colleagues: Pteronarctos goedertae, Pteronarctos piersoni, Pacificotaria hadromma, and Proneotherium repenningi; all of these, except P. goedertae, were found at Moloch beach. Subsequently, two more fossil pinnipeds were described from the Astoria Formation: Enaliarctos emlongi (possibly from the Nye Mudstone – near the Nye/Astoria contact) and the tiny phocoid Pinnarctidion rayi. These two were from a separate locality – where the bizarre “oyster bear” Kolponomos newportensis was discovered (…also by Emlong). Oddly enough, Enaliarctos emlongi is one of only two pinnipeds from that locality that don’t begin with P.

 Some beautiful bivalves from the Astoria Formation.

We found a few chunks of rolled bone fragments – but nothing really interesting. Fossil localities with marine mammals are usually pretty easy to prospect – because whales are freaking huge, and have huge bones. It’s usually not hard to find vertebrae and ribs of baleen whales, and again, I was struck by how rare vertebrate remains were. Sure, there were some nice mollusks – but compared to fossil localities in California, like the Purisima Formation at Capitola where there are tons of beautiful mollusks littering the beach – the Astoria at Moloch beach was sort of average in terms of the number of invertebrates. After an hour or two of searching, I finally spotted a huge bone – the first in situ specimen at the locality. It was a large (~1.5 meter long) mandible of a baleen whale, perhaps something like Cophocetus. It’s technically legal to collect concretions from the Oregon coast with vertebrate remains in them – but not to dig bones out from the cliffs or wave cut bench. None of this detracts from Emlong’s legacy – in fact, the inability of three vertebrate paleontologists and several amateurs to find much of anything at any locality after a day of winter field work only makes his discoveries more amazing. My suspicion – and Kirk Johnson’s – is that Emlong capitalized on the fact that concretions sit around for a long time, and nobody before him collected vertebrate bearing concretions in such a systematic manner. There must have been concretions which had accumulated on the beach for thousands of years, and Emlong and subsequent collectors have effectively collected most of that ‘lag’ of concretions, leaving little for current visitors.

Ray sketching Kent Gibson's billfish.

After leaving the beach, we visited the nearby home of local amateur fossil collector Kent Gibson, who had found a partial billfish skull in a concretion at Moloch beach (possibly from the Nye Mudstone). It’s some sort of a huge Aglyptorhynchus-like billfish. Kent had an impressive collection, including a beautiful little pinniped skull that could be fairly important, if it were prepared and placed within a museum collection. Ray – being a fish guy – was wanting to see the billfish and other specimens. Upon arriving at Kent’s house, we saw a yard littered with fossils. Ray borrowed some sidewalk chalk from Kent’s kids and started drawing an outline of the billfish’s body as it would have appeared in life, to scale, with the fossil in place. Altogether it was pretty neat. But, we were getting hungry and Frank Boyden had invited us to dinner at his awesome cabin, decorated with his artwork and the artwork of others. Frank showed us some parts of his collection, including original prints by late 19th century French ‘bohemian’ artist Odilon Redon. At one point, Frank needed to install a railing in his house – instead of installing any old railing, he went to the beach, got a stalk of bull kelp, and casted in bronze – and it is one of the coolest damn things I’ve ever seen. Frank showed us his printmaking studio, which was spectacular, and useful for me as an artist to learn about more involved artistic methods – pencil and paper is my bag, because it’s simple and primitive (and dirt cheap).

Frank's "cell phone"

We never got a break, even during dinner: Frank had all sorts of bits of animal skeletons. Here kirk and I puzzle over a large fish skull.


I don't remember what was going on here.

Next up: behind the scenes at the Oregon coast aquarium, Sea Lion Caves, and the conclusion of the trip

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Oregon coast trip with Ray Troll and Kirk Johnson, part 1: Lincoln city, Emlong's demise, Sitka Center

A little while ago I realized that I had totally forgotten to talk about our trip to Oregon with Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll last February. I can’t believe it’s been a year already; after our trip to Oregon, my wife and I only had two weeks to finish packing for our three year trip to New Zealand, so I know exactly why I neglected to post about this earlier. Kirk and Ray are working on a new book project, sort of a sequel to “Cruisin the Fossil Freeway”, which was a combination of science, humor, Ray’s awesome art, and the tale of a huge road trip across the American west. This new project changes the focus from the western interior to the Pacific coast of North America – the new book project is titled “Cruisin the Eternal Coastline”, and deals with fossils from Baja California to Barrow, Alaska. Kirk and Ray received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2011 to begin leg work for the project. I first met the dynamic duo in October 2011, literally the day after I found out I had been accepted into the Geology Ph.D. program here at Otago. I showed the guys some of the fossils from my collection, which at the time I was still studying and curating (and are now all in UCMP collections). The next day, we visited a bunch of fossil localities in Santa Cruz, and visited a large mural by Ray at the Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz.

Ray and Kirk got into contact with me because of my interest in west coast fossil vertebrates – specifically marine vertebrates. Granted, there are all sorts of spectacular land mammal localities as well (and even non-Cenozoic localities, but I won’t dare talk about those…), but the eastern North Pacific margin is home to one of the most extensively sampled marine vertebrate assemblages on earth. The majority of this record is from the coasts of California and Oregon. Ray and Kirk sent me an invitation to join them in coastal Oregon, to track down some of the haunts and old localities of one of my biggest paleontological heroes – Doug Emlong. The guys were even able to cover our travel expenses with their fellowship! Sarah and I left San Francisco, and headed up I-5 and reached Grant’s Pass by midnight. We left early the next morning, having to make it to the Overlook Motel in Lincoln City by 1pm. We just barely had time to take a short detour off Highway 20 to head south to Toledo to visit the type locality of Simocetus rayi, which was described by Ewan Fordyce (my Ph.D. adviser) in 2002. We followed the locality description by my advisor – which is effectively the same as Emlong’s notes. I’m not sure what has happened in the area, but there weren’t any cliffs or exposures of the Alsea Formation anywhere within a mile or two of the indicated point. It’s possible that exposures along the river are now overgrown – as I’ve seen with all sorts of localities in Humboldt County, California.

The type locality of Simocetus rayi - or, somewhere nearby it. Emlong's notes weren't always accurate, and there don't really appear to be any fossiliferous outcrops in the vicinity. Or, any outcrops at all. If there once were cliffs here, they have long since grown over with vegetation.

We finally made it to the motel with ten minutes to spare, just in time for Ray and Kirk’s talk on “Cruisin the Fossil Freeway”. They go on book tours, and have a ~40 minute presentation version of the book – and it’s a real hoot. I had seen it previously at the Bone Room in Berkeley during their bay area leg of the trip in October 2011; it was great, except for the fact that a member of the audience who knew a bit about fossils muttered to themselves and nodded agreement or verbally confirmed everything that came out of Ray or Kirk’s mouths – which was a bit irritating. The attendance at their talk in Lincoln City, however, was enormous – well over a hundred (maybe even two hundred) people showed up, which was phenomenal (both speakers were impressed with the turnout). After the talk, we met all sorts of locals interested in fossils, rocks, and paleontology – and spent at least another hour chatting with folks before leaving the motel. We met several local private collectors, as well as some members of the fossil club “NARG”, who I had heard about for years – they have the oddly non-specific title “North American Research Group”, but they are a seriously organized group of amateurs who are actually able to acquire permits from the state of Oregon to collect, prepare, and curate fossils into various permanent collections. And they do it all as volunteer work; several years ago, they collected a huge balaenopterid mysticete skull from the Empire Formation of Oregon; it’s still under preparation.

I also got to meet the esteemed Frank Boyden of the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, north of Lincoln City; the center was established in 1970 by Frank and his wife Jane as a residency program for artists, scholars, and academics, with a humble beginning as a summer camp. Upon arriving at the motel, I learned that the talk was being sponsored by the Sitka Center. Frank is a fascinating person to talk to – warm, eccentric, talented, hospitable, and a total luddite. I knew we had some sort of accommodation, but this was one of those things that I had barely planned: Sarah and I were busy as hell with preparations for the move to the southern hemisphere, and Ray and Kirk had told me that everything was taken care of. I guess I was expecting a hotel room somewhere. What I didn’t realize was that Frank was graciously putting us up in some of the cabins at the Sitka Center – Kirk and Ray had their own, and Sarah and I had another. It was a wonderful surprise, totally out of left field. They’re these incredible “sea ranch style” cabins in the Oregon rainforest (sea ranch architecture will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any time on the central or northern California coastline, especially along Highway 1 in Sonoma and Marin Counties). I remember asking Ray whether or not we’d have wireless internet, and Ray reminded me that “Frank has a rock with painted buttons on it for a cell phone.” That was a good enough answer, I suppose. I should have remembered, because earlier at the talk I remember somebody asking him about a cell phone number and he gleefully pulled out his rock "phone".

Inside view of our incredible sea ranch style cabin in the Oregon rainforest at the Sitka Center.

To finish our first day of the trip, we tracked down the place where Douglas Emlong died. Using the police report deposited within the Emlong archive at the USNM, we tracked down the exact spot to a small ledge off the side of the road on the Otter Crest Loop between Depoe Bay and Newport, Oregon, just a few hundred yards north of the overlook parking lot. Emlong was a troubled person, and clearly suffered from some psychological issues. There is evidence of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or perhaps bipolar disorder – I’ve had many friends suffering from either, but Emlong’s case seems to have been more severe. He tended to quickly spend money he received from the Smithsonian, and in correspondence with Clayton Ray, he reacted rather extremely after learning that the Smithsonian was unable to appropriate enough funding to continue paying him (sometime around 1977-1978). In June 1980, Emlong returned empty handed from a trip to southern California, and after being back in Newport for less than 24 hours, leapt to his death off a cliff adjacent to the Otter Crest Loop. We only thought it fitting to make a pilgrimage to where the troubled genius met his end.

Douglas Emlong's last view. Not a bad one, in my opinion.

Ray, Kirk, and others reflecting on where Douglas Emlong met his end.

 My wife looking down the cliff - it's about a five hundred foot plunge to the Pacific below.

Next up: A visit to the Yaquina Formation