Monday, May 18, 2015

Driving Through the Most Dangerous Plate Boundary in the World: Into the Realm of the Drowning Dinosaurs

The sediments of the Great Valley Group form the parallel ridges trending diagonally across the photograph.
California has a lot of potential for geological mayhem, with the San Andreas and many other faults, mountain-building, and volcanoes of many kinds. But it once was worse. During the Mesozoic era and the early part of the Cenozoic, the entire California coast was rimmed by a massive subduction zone. The huge earthquakes produced as the plate sank beneath the western edge of the continent would have produced horrific tsunamis. The sinking plate eventually produced bodies of molten rock that found their way to the surface, producing huge volcanoes, much like those found in the Andes Mountains today.

We've been making our way on a blog journey through this most dangerous plate boundary. The remains of the subduction zone have been lifted and exposed by erosion in the Coast Ranges. So far we have been observing the rocks of the accretionary wedge, the intensely deformed material that has been churned up within the trench of the subduction zone (see this post for an example). In our last post, we crossed through the oceanic crust of the Coast Range Ophiolite in Del Puerto Canyon in the Diablo Range. At the end of that post we crossed the Tesla-Ortigalita fault and entered into the exposures of the sediments of the Great Valley Group. We are now in the rain shadow of the Coast Ranges, and the slopes are barren of trees.
This large slump in the lower part of Del Puerto Canyon is the location of the discovery of the first dinosaur fossil ever found in California, in 1937.
The rocks of the Great Valley Group were deposited in a sea that lay between the trench and the western shoreline of the North American continent. The shallow ocean environment is called a forearc basin. The sediments consist of primarily of sandstone, siltstone, and shale that cascaded off the submerged edge of river deltas along the shoreline. The underwater landslides were called turbidity currents. The sediments pushed on the crust, and subsidence allowed vast thicknesses of sediment to accumulate. In the region around Del Puerto Canyon east of the Bay area, the layers total as much 25,000 feet. At the south end of the valley near Bakersfield, the rocks are around twice that.
All in all it doesn't sound like a good place to search for dinosaur fossils. The rocks are the right age, Cretaceous, but the dinosaurs were terrestrial creatures. They no doubt roamed the slopes of the the volcanoes and coastal plains of the continent, but few are known to have spent much time in the oceans. Finding a dinosaur fossil here seems about as likely as finding a cow or coyote skeleton at the bottom of the sea in the modern day. 
So, a hypothetical question: what if you did find a cow or a coyote skeleton on the sea floor? Could you explain it? It might take a moment, but one could imagine an intense flash flood along one of the rivers that flow off the Sierra Nevada and through the Great Valley, trapping and drowning a few cows or other creatures along the way. Their carcasses would have floated downstream, and eventually the bones could have sunk to the sea floor. I bring up this point because the sediments of the Great Valley Group have in fact yielded a few dinosaur fossils, and they probably did originate in a river flood.
The first dinosaur ever found in the state was found in 1936 in our own county, Stanislaus, by a 17 year old boy named Al Bennison. He was searching for shell fossils in Del Puerto Canyon near the landslide seen in the photo above when he found some bone fragments on the hillside. They proved to be the remains of a duck-billed dinosaur (or hadrosaur), possibly a creature called a Saurolophus.
These were big creatures, as much as 30 or 35 feet long. They were plant-eaters, and were among the last of the dinosaurs, along with Triceratops and the tyrannosaurs. Bennison's discovery made news at the time, but few people in our county are aware of the awesome paleontological heritage of our region today. I'm hoping that will be changing soon as we prepare a display for the new Great Valley Museum of Natural History at Modesto Junior College.
But Bennison wasn't done yet. A year later in another canyon nearby he found the remains of a fearsome marine reptile called a mosasaur. Mosasaurs were probably the top predators of the Late Cretaceous seas, possibly even consuming sharks (yeah, that's a mosasaur you are seeing in the Jurassic World movie trailers, acting like a Sea World Orca). They are descended from ancient terrestrial lizards similar to the Komodo Dragon.
Bennison's mosasaur was a new species and now bears his name: Plotosaurus bennisoni. Like the hadrosaur, few people are aware that they once lived in this region. We have a four-foot long skull of a mosasaur on display in the museum, and a more extensive display is in the planning stages.
Another species of mosasaur, Plotosaurus Tuckeri, was found a few years later a bit further to the south. As can be seen in the diagram below, these creatures approached the size of whales, and would be a terror if they lived in today's oceans.

There have been many other discoveries of Mesozoic dinosaurs and other reptiles like plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. The best resource for learning about these fascinating creatures is the book Dinosaurs and Other Mesozoic Reptiles of California by Richard Hilton of Sierra College. Check it out!
From Dinosaurs and other Mesozoic Reptiles of California, by Richard Hilton
I reached the mouth of Del Puerto Canyon and was met with a disturbing sight that was emblematic of the conflict between humans and the natural landscape that we inhabit. More on that in the next post.

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