Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Strange Fossils are Found in Your Region? We have Oncorhynchus rastrosus, the Sabertooth Salmon

Drawing by Jake Biewer of CSU Stanislaus
I've got a delightful new project these days. As I've mentioned many times, our region has a wonderful new natural history museum in our Science Community Center. The Great Valley Museum has existed for more than thirty years, but most of that time it was in a dilapidated former house and bookstore for the east campus of Modesto Junior College. Wonderful people labored over the years to educate our children about the marvelous natural history of the valley but the buildings were not up to the task. At long last we have a facility that is deserving of the incredible talents of the volunteers who have kept the museum going over the years.

The museum opens its doors officially on April 4, but school tours of the museum began this week. The planetarium has been offering shows for a year now. But there are still important tasks to complete. There is a vacant space on the north side that should become an outdoor nature laboratory with a pond and river environment with native vegetation. And there is a big blank wall that is destined to become a paleontology/geology exhibit. And that is what I am working on these days.

A paleontology exhibit of course would emphasize the fossils found in the local region, and we have a rich record of fossil discoveries from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras (the so-called "age of dinosaurs" and "age of mammals"). I've written about these fossils numerous times, but now we need to think of how to bring these fascinating creatures to the attention of our children and community members.

I brought up the topic with the paleontology professor at CSU Stanislaus, Dr. Julie Sankey, and that led to an impromptu tour of the work underway at the university. One of my former students, Jake Biewer, has been researching some of the creatures found in the Miocene Mehrten formation at Turlock Lake Reservoir. They include giant tortoises, and one of the strangest creatures of all, a Sabertooth Salmon (Oncorhynchus rastrosus). These salmon were found along the west coast of the United States, and lived from the Miocene to Pliocene (13 million to 4 million years ago). They reached lengths of 3 meters (that's nine feet). Despite the menacing teeth, they probably consumed plankton. The teeth probably were used in competition with other males.

What child couldn't be impressed to find that creatures like these used to live on the land their town occupies? Be ready to hear about some more of the creatures that might be part of an exhibit at our wonderful new museum.
Fossil specimens of Oncorhynchus rastrosus from U.C. Berkeley paleontology collection.