Field Trip To A Vertebrate Fossil Locality In The Coso Range, California

The Coso Field Trip Contents

Introduction Text: The Field Trip Images: On-Site Images: Fossils

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Click on the image for a larger picture. A seeker of vertebrate paleontological adventure in California's Coso Range explores badlands topography carved in the appropriately named Pliocene Coso Formation, which here yields several species of mineralized mammalian remains some 4.8 to 3.0 million years old--inluding teeth and post cranial skeletal elements of the Hagerman Horse, considered one of the earliest members of the genus of Equus, which incudes all modern horses and equids. Original photograph snapped with a Minolta 35mm camera; this image was created by photographing that orignal picture with a Nikon CoolPix 995 digital camera.

Introduction

Visit the Coso Range Wilderness in Inyo County, California, west of Death Valley National Park at the southern end of California's Owens Valley, where vertebrate fossils some 4.8 to 3.0 million years old can be observed in the Pliocene-age Coso Formation: It's a paleontologically significant place that yields many species of mammals, including the remains of Equus simplicidens, the Hagerman Horse, named for its spectacular occurrences at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in Idaho; Equus simplicidens is considered one the earliest known members of the genus Equus, which includes the modern horse and all other equids.

Please note that fossil collecting is not allowed within the designated Coso Range Wilderness, except by special permit issued by the Bureau of Land Management--a permit given only to individuals who matriculated from an accredited university with a minimum B.S. degree, or represent a museum whose credentials meet the necessary standards of excellence.

And now for the obligatory words of caution. Endemic to the Mojave Desert of California, including the Las Vegas, Nevada, region by the way, is Valley Fever. This is a potentially serious illness called, scientifically, Coccidioidomycosis, or "coccy" for short; it's caused by the inhalation of an infectious airborne fungus whose spores lie dormant in the uncultivated, harsh alkaline soils of the Mojave Desert. The Coso Mountains lie near the northern known edges of Valley Fever prevalence within the Mojave Desert province. When an unsuspecting and susceptible individual breaths the spores into his or her lungs, the fungus springs to life, as it prefers the moist, dark recesses of the human lungs (cats, dogs, rodents and even snakes, among other vertebrates, are also susceptible to "coccy") to multiply and be happy. Most cases of active Valley Fever resemble a minor touch of the flu, though the majority of those exposed show absolutely no symptoms of any kind of illness; it is important to note, of course, that in rather rare instances Valley Fever can progress to a severe and serious infection, causing high fever, chills, unending fatigue, rapid weight loss, inflammation of the joints, meningitis, pneumonia and even death. Every fossil enthusiast who chooses to visit the Mojave Desert must be fully aware of the risks involved.

Field Trip To The Coso Bone-Bearing Badlands

An inviting route to Death Valley National Park is State Highway 190 out of Olancha in California's southern Owens Valley. Not only is this a much-scenic and reliably accessible pathway to one of the world's favorite haunts, but it also places visitors within convenient striking distance of a most fascinating vertebrate fossil locality in the federally established and administered Coso Range Wilderness--an area no longer accessible to motor vehicles, of course, though it's still wide open for inspection by foot and other non-mechanized means.

Perhaps not a few folks remain unfamiliar with this particular area, and I can surely see why. You just can't spot the bone-bearing beds from the asphalt and, besides, it's more than probable that many a traveler has their eyes fixed on the ever-looming and impressive hulk of the Panamint Mountains up ahead--the range which guards the western side of Death Valley, proper.

The Cosos are that at first blush nondescript piece of territory off to the east and southeast as you speed along the southern fringes of Owens Lake between Highway 395 and the intersection with State 136 to Keeler. They are primarily of igneous origin, born of fire and brimstone, the savage spewings of explosive Cenozoic Era molten lavas in combination with Mesozoic Era batholithic instrusive granites--as unlikely a source of fossil specimens as one could be excused for believing. Yet, tucked way back in the rugged Coso recesses lie the eroding badlands of an ancient lake system which yields up many fossil bones.

The vertebrate remains that await discovered in the Coso Mountains come from the appropriately named Coso Formation, which is upper Miocene to upper Pliocene in geologic age, dated with considerable radiometric confidence at 6.0 to 3.0 years old. And all fossil specimens described from the Coso Formation derive from a restricted sequence some 4.8 to 3.0 million years old. This means that statigraphically speaking the Coso mineralized skeletal material falls within the range of what vertebrate paleontologists call the Blancan Stage of North American Land Mammal Age chronology--that is to say, a geologic interval roughly 4.75 to 1.80 million years ago. Indeed, the Pliocene Coso Formation yields up one of the premiere Blancan Stage mammal localities in all the US West.

Petrological analysis demonstrates that the Coso hydrologic-volcanic system deposited a composite aggregate of roughly 500 feet of arkosic sandstones, shales, claystones, diatomite (a variety of rock composed almost entirely of diatoms, a photosynthesizing microscopic single celled plant), air fall volcanic ash, and basalts in a relatively localized lacustrine (lake) basin influenced by subordinate fluviatile (stream) and alluvial conditions that contributed substantial detrital constituents to the continuously operating three million-year regime of sedimentary-igneous accumulations--all subjected on occasion to geophysically stressful extensional (pulling apart of a portion of the earth's crust) and block-faulting forces.

Significantly, near the conclusion of its depositional history--between four and three million years ago--the Coso Formation starts to record a dramatic influx of clastic-detrital debris now eroding with sudden onslaught from a fault-controlled uplift and eastward rotational tilting of the eastern front of the central to southern Sierra Nevada--a still-active and fully on-going creative geologic process that continues to fashion the great elevations and breathtaking contrasts in topographic relief so spectacularly characteristic of the eastern face of the Sierra Nevada; the northern Sierra of course (Donner Pass area, northward) has stood at approximately the same height as present since at least the early middle Eocene Epoch some 48 million years ago.

Geologist J. R. Schultz was the first scientist to investigate this fossil fauna. He led experienced field technicians from the California Institute of Technology on two extensive expeditions to the Cosos, the first in the winter of 1930-'31, then another during the summer of 1936. Schultz eventually published his geological and paleontological findings in: Schultz, J. R., 1937, A late Cenozoic vertebrate fauna from the Coso Mountains, Inyo County, California, Carnegie Institute of Washington Publication 487, pages 75-109. Among his many fossil mammal descriptions were meadow mice, rabbits, haenoid dogs, very large grazing horses--one of which was eventually recognized by paleontologists as the world-famous Hagerman Horse (one of the oldest members of the genus Equus, which includes all modern horses and other equids)--peccaries, slender camelids, and a short-jawed mastodon. Additional Coso Formation fossil material, secured by teams of professional paleontology explorers who succeeded Schultz's ground-breaking investigations, includes undescribed ostracods (a minute bivalved crustacean), algal bodies (stromatolitic developments created by species of blue-green algae), diatoms (a microscopic single-celled photosynthesizing single-celled plant), fish, a vole (the famous Cosomys primus, named in honor of its occurrence in the Coso Mountains), a large-headed llama, a bear--and, prolific quantities of pollen, palynological specimens that add invaluable paleobotanical information to the Coso story.

The Pliocene Coso Formation pollens come from what paleobotanists call the Haiwee Florule, situated near the shores of Haiwee Reservoir approximately five miles south of the Coso Range vertebrate fossil locality. They were recovered from brownish siltstones in the lower portions of the Coso Formation by the late paleobotanist Daniel I. Axelrod and W. S. Ting through sophisticated--and extraordinarily dangerous--laboratory procedures, involving the use of perhaps the most potent/unforgiving acid known to exist, hydrofluoric acid, whose efficient destructive activity on human tissue is so rapid and overwhelming that permanent damage to epidermis, muscles, and nerves occurs before one even feels any degree of discomfort or pain after skin exposure. Published documentation of that palynological study can be found in the scientific paper, Late Pliocene Floras East of the Sierra Nevada, by D. I. Axelrod and W. S. Ting, University of California Publications in Geological Sciences volume 39, number 1, issued November 7. 1960.

The extensive fossil flora that Axelrod and Ting collaboratively examined from the Pliocene Coso Formation includes such conifers as: Incense Cedar; White Fir; Grand Fir; California Red Fir; Bristlecone Pine; Jeffrey Pine; Sugar Pine; Singleleaf Pinyon Pine; Western White Pine; Lodgepole Pine; Ponderosa Pine; Douglas-Fir; Western Hemlock; and Giant Sequoia--in addition to the following angiosperms: White Alder; Water Birch; Hazelnut; Blue Elderberry; Pacific Dogwood; California Black Oak; Interior Live Oak; Silk Tassel Bush; Black Walnut; Bush Poppy; Snow Bush; Deer Brush; June Berry; Rock Siraea; Thimbleberry; Coyote Willow; Pacific Willow; White Squaw Current; Red Prickly Currant; Kellog Sierran Currant; Sierra Gooseberry; California Slippery Elm; and Zelkova.

Axelrod and Ting concluded that the overall paleo-environmental aspect of the Coso Formation Haiwee Flora most closely resembles today's Sierran pine-fir forests along the moist western slopes of California's Sierra Nevada. Based on the known annual precipitation totals necessary to sustain modern examples of such luxuriant forest vegetation found in the fossil flora, Coso Pliocene times experienced an estimated minimum of 35 inches of rain per year--whereas today the area lies within what geographers categorize as the Mojave Desert-Great Basin transition zone, which in the vicinity of the Coso fossil occurrences receives a scant three to five inches of rain per year, with soaring summer temperatures that frequently exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit; in forested Sierran regions where modern-day members of the fossil flora now grow, temperature rarely exceed 85 degrees F.

While fossil pollens lie preserved in older horizons of the Coso Formation, all the vertebrate remains occur within a rather narrow zone in the upper part of the Coso sedimentary deposits; they are found in a buff-colored arkosic (composed primarily of the mineral feldspar) sandstone which weathers into subangular chunks. Often, the mineralized mammalian material can be found already weathered out of the sandstone and in the softer claystone a few feet below the sandstone. The fossil-bearing horizon shows up within most of Pliocene exposures of the Coso Formation, so there is a lot of territory to explore. Schultz's original bone localities lie about two and a half miles from State Route 190; reaching them now involves strenuous hiking through rugged, desolate desert terrain. "In the old days," though, one could negotiate a four-wheel drive vehicle up a system of packed sand desert washes, through magnificent outcrops of the bone-bearing Coso Formation, to within a quarter mile or so of the Schultz fossil quarry. As a matter of fact, with the aid of "trusty" CJ5 and CJ7 jeeps, I managed to thread my way back to the familiar box canyon parking spot several memorable times before the Coso Range became a protected wilderness region--a federally mandated designation which means, naturally, that without a special BLM permit you can't keep anything you find there (paleontological, or otherwise)--except in a camera.

Although many Coso bones observed in surface exposures will be fragmental, that doesn't necessary indicate that what you've found can't be identified, eventually. In addition to occasionally encountering isolated-scattered occurrences of complete teeth and associated jaws, watch out, too, for such ostensibly insignificant specimens as fractured limb sections and other assorted incomplete post cranial skeletal elements that reveal a crucially preserved articulating surface (a ball or socket joint, for example). These are prize finds, indeed, paleontologically speaking, as experts in vertebrate paleontology should be able to determine exactly what kind of animal they came from. There are certainly a good many fossil bones waiting to be found and subsequently photographed where they reside in situ in their sandy to clay-rich sedimentary environment. Probably the most efficiently productive method is to locate the fossil-bearing bed (it will tilt with the moderate of the sedimentary rocks, and often it occurs on a precipitous hill-slope--so be careful), then hike it out for as long as it is traceable. Some extensions of the bone horizon are quite prolific, while others seem pretty much barren.

All the way around, this is a great area in which to get some exercise.

Though not necessarily during summer times, one must observe with at least a modicum of sagacious deference to the months of June through September in this part of the Northern Hemisphere, when daytime temperatures regularly exceed 105 degrees. More comfortable--and physically safer--hiking weather in this geographical transition zone between the northwestern Mojave Desert and westernmost Great Basin is traditionally encountered during mid to late Fall and mid Spring.

Still and all--speaking of good old hot summertimes--I must admit that my first acquaintance with the Coso bones was during a particularly ultra-thermal early July. This was a number of years ago, when I resided in coastal southern California. This was a number of years ago, before the Coso Range became off limits to off-road vehicles. This was a number of years ago, before the Coso Range became the Coso Wilderness.

The preliminary circumstances: My father and I wanted to escape the dismal, fog-bound coast of Santa Barbara. We wanted to get out into the desert in the worst way possible. Thus, we turned deaf ears to weather reports of 100-plus degrees on the Mojave Desert.

Because when Coso paleo-urges strike...well, there's no turning back.

At the crossroads in Olancha, at a filling station, somebody was talking about 108 in the shade. That somebody was assessing the conservative side of the situation. I was inhaling fire, it seemed. Somebody else, the service attendant, would only shake his head when I pointed, with what could have easily been interpreted as braggadocious indifference to the brutal elements and the imminent dangers they could present, down the road in the direction of Death Valley in reply to his inquiry as to our destination.

At what our maps indicated was the correct intersection of State Route 190 with a dry wash a number of miles beyond Olancha, I idled the CJ5 jeep. No matter that the heat from the engine overpowered the stifling furnace of the Mojave. We re-checked our maps; and then decided to take yet another look at them. This was the place all right, and the wash leading off into the Coso Mountains invited us onward; not to mention the obvious that the potential bone bonanza up ahead was a prime motivator. I got the jeep down in the middle of the wash with the four-wheel drive already engaged, primed for any kind of sandiness we might encounter.

We should have been so lucky as to get stuck in some mere sand.

What happened--and that within sight of the bone-bearing badlands we had traveled some 250 miles to explore--was somewhat more than we had expected. Smoke on a sudden came billowing from beneath the hood, and the nauseating pungence of electrical wires on fire became intense; this, just before the jeep jerked to a halt, cold. We leaped to the situation with canteens in hand, flipping open the hood to already charred remains of wires--and we doused what we could. Then I ran with hectic unsteadiness back to the rear of the jeep where we kept our extra water supply. The five gallon container felt like a bag full of air as I plunged its contents to the flames, dousing them repeatedly until only sickening smoldering remained.

So what did we do next? Consternate? Curse? Nope, we took a hike (fossil mania has its prerogatives). Just up ahead a few hundred feet began the badlands exposures of the Coso Formation. And it was with not a little anticipation that we struck out to them with our remaining full canteens, leaving behind for the moment that dead-in-the sand jeep. We crisscrossed those ancient rocks while following the bone-bearing bed, and the paleontological zeal propelled us further in that glaring, brutal heat than I could have possibly foreseen.

But broken down jeeps wait for every man. A sobering mechanical analysis of the predicament proved that the wiring had been fried to a crisp when the horn mechanism had jarred loose, shorting out the system: too many bumpy roads too many times taken. Aided and abetted by the recollection of some basic electrical knowledge garnered from a recent workshop (studying diagrams and such from the jeep's manual from the curbside at home), we figured pretty quickly that we could safely bypass the obvious tactic of securing assistance when stuck out in the boondocks all alone, where nobody in the world who knows where you are is there to lend a hand--in other words, yelling and yelling like crazy at the top of your lungs. No, this was too easy.

We chose to resort to a plan of action which in theory we had only heard about; this entailed an electrical trick usually quite controversial, but one worth trying under the circumstances. It was decided that if we were ever to get out of that wash alive we would have to "hot wire" the contraption.

The prospects did not excite us much. What if an officer of the law should wander by and catch us in the hot wiring act? Perish the thought! Yet, we persisted and pursued and made it back to tell the tale.

And the moral of this story? Don't toot your horn too often about how you can brave the desert elements, I suppose.

We maneuvered the jeep back to Santa Barbara the same way it got to the Cosos to begin with--towed behind an Open Road camper/RV, and later on down the line (with some creative electrical finagling) we finally got a brand new wiring harness installed, and the four wheel drive "contraption" was by all indications good as new, and good to go: A new-and-improved jeep that actually managed survive numerous additional deep desert backroad adventures.

To all who visit the Coso badlands, don't be surprised if someday you happen to spot a four-wheel drive vehicle stranded along State Route 190, hood raised, the driver nowhere to be seen. If this is the case, simply follow the boot prints in the sand up a dry desert wash into the Cosos until you come upon a fossil hunter, nose bent to the ground, examining a 4.8 to 3.0 million year-old mammal bone.

On-Site Images

Click on the image for a larger picture. A Google Earth street car perspective (snapped in October, 2011) that I edited and processed through photoshop. The view is practically due east along California State Route 190, headed toward Death Valley National Park, at SR 190's junction with Highway 395 in Olancha, California. Famous venerable landmark cottonwood trees at left. And the northern end of the Coso Range lies dead straight ahead on the skyline. That's where the upper Miocene to upper Pliocene Coso Formation produces several species of 4.8 to 3.0 million year-old mineralized mammal bones in the Coso Range Wilderness, including--meadow mice, rabbits, haenoid dogs, very large grazing horses--one of which was eventually recognized by paleontologists as the world-famous Hagerman Horse (one of the oldest members of the genus Equus, which includes all modern horses and other equids)--peccaries, slender camelids, and a short-jawed mastodon, a vole (famous Cosomys primus, named in honor of its occurrence in the Coso Mountains, a large-headed llama, and a bear.

Click on the image for a larger picture. A Google Earth street car perspective (snapped in January, 2009) that I edited and processed through photoshop. Here is the famed packed sand wash that leads to the fossil bone-bearing beds in the northern Coso Range (on the skyline). View is southeastward. The upper Miocene to upper Pliocene Coso Formation exposed in badlands fashion within the Coso Range Wilderness produces several species of 4.8 to 3.0 million year-old mineralized mammal bones, including--meadow mice, rabbits, haenoid dogs, very large grazing horses--one of which was eventually recognized by paleontologists as the world-famous Hagerman Horse (one of the oldest members of the genus Equus, which includes all modern horses and other equids)--peccaries, slender camelids, a short-jawed mastodon, a vole (famous Cosomys primus, named in honor of its occurrence in the Coso Mountains, a large-headed llama, and a bear.

Click on the image for a larger picture. Coso explorers stand in one of several packed sand washes that penetrate the Pliocene Coso Formation--an exposure of which lies at middle right of picture. View is a back westward to the eastern flanks of the Sierra Nevada. Please note: This photograph was taken before establishment of the Coso Range Wilderness. Original photograph snapped with a Minolta 35mm camera; this image was created by photographing that orignal picture with a Nikon CoolPix 995 digital camera.

Click on the image for a larger picture. Coso adventurers stand ready to explore exposures of the 6.0 to 3.0 million year-old Pliocene Coso Formation. Here, the Coso produces algal stromatolites (precipitated by blue-green algae), palynological grains (pollens from conifers and angiosperms), and occasional profuse ostracods. View is westward to the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Original photograph snapped with a Minolta 35mm camera; this image was created by photographing that orignal picture with a Nikon CoolPix 995 digital camera.

Click on the image for a larger picture. Coso enthusiasts relax after hiking through excellent exposures of the bone-bearing Pliocene Coso Formation. The vertebrate remains weather out in the upper part of the Coso Formation, in strata 4.8 to 3.0 million years old. Please note: Photograph taken prior to inclusion of the Coso Formation in the Coso Range Wilderness. Original photograph snapped with a Minolta 35mm camera; this image was created by photographing that orignal picture with a Nikon CoolPix 995 digital camera.

Click on the image for a larger picture. Moody meteorological doings over the Coso Mountains. Pliocene Coso Formation badlands from center to left of image. The vertebrate-bearing horizon is 4.8 to 3.0 million years old. Please note: Photograph taken prior to inclusion of the Coso Formation in the Coso Range Wilderness. Original photograph snapped with a Minolta 35mm camera; this image was created by photographing that orignal picture with a Nikon CoolPix 995 digital camera.

Images Of Fossils

Click on the images for a larger picture. Two different perspectives of the same horse tooth seen in the image directly below (at upper middle). From the 3.5 to 3.0 million year-old section of the Pliocene Coso Formation, Coso Mountains, California. Photographs snapped with a Nikon CoolPix 995 digital camera.

Click on the image for a larger picture. Representative mineralized vertebrate fossils observed in Pliocene Coso Formation, Coso Mountains, California. Partial jaw (upper left), teeth, and limb fragments from a horse--between 3.5 and 3.0 million years old. Original photograph snapped with a Minolta 35mm camera; this image was created by photographing that orignal picture with a Nikon CoolPix 995 digital camera.

Click on the image for a larger picture. A closer look, with different angle perspective, at the horse jaw fragment in previous image (at upper left). From the Pliocene Coso Formation, Coso Mountains, California--a specimen roughly 3.5 to 3.0 million years old. Photograph snapped with a Nikon CoolPix 995 digital camera.

Click on the image for a larger picture. An artist's reconstruction of the Hagerman Horse skeleton--Equus simplicidens, whose mineralized remains occur in the 3.5 to 3.0 million year-old section of Pliocene Coso Formation, Coso Mountains, California. Equus simplicidens is considered one of the earliest known members of the genus Equus, which includes the modern horse and all other equids. Named for its spectacular occurrences at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in Idaho. Photograph courtesy Hagerman Valley Historical Society Museum.

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Paleontology-Related Pages

Web sites I have created pertaining to fossils

  • Fossils In Death Valley National Park: A site dedicated to the paleontology, geology, and natural wonders of Death Valley National Park; lots of on-site photographs of scenic localities within the park; images of fossils specimens; links to many virtual field trips of fossil-bearing interest.
  • Fossil Insects And Vertebrates On The Mojave Desert, California: Journey to two world-famous fossil sites in the middle Miocene Barstow Formation: one locality yields upwards of 50 species of fully three-dimensional, silicified freshwater insects, arachnids, and crustaceans that can be dissolved free and intact from calcareous concretions; a second Barstow Formation district provides vertebrate paleontologists with one of the greatest concentrations of Miocene mammal fossils yet recovered from North America--it's the type locality for the Bartovian State of the Miocene Epoch, 15.9 to 12.5 million years ago, with which all geologically time-equivalent rocks in North American are compared.
  • A Visit To Fossil Valley, Great Basin Desert, Nevada: Take a virtual field trip to a Nevada locality that yields the most complete, diverse, fossil assemblage of terrestrial Miocene plants and animals known from North America--and perhaps the world, as well.
  • Fossils At Red Rock Canyon State Park, California: Visit wildly colorful Red Rock Canyon State Park on California's northern Mojave Desert, approximately 130 miles north of Los Angeles--scene of innumerable Hollywood film productions and commercials over the years--where the Middle to Late Miocene (13 to 7 million years old) Dove Spring Formation, along with a classic deposit of petrified woods, yields one of the great terrestrial, land-deposited Miocene vertebrate fossil faunas in all the western United States.
  • Late Pennsylvanian Fossils In Kansas: Travel to the midwestern plains to discover the classic late Pennsylvanian fossil wealth of Kansas--abundant, supremely well-preserved associations of such invertebrate animals as brachiopods, bryozoans, corals, echinoderms, fusulinids, mollusks (gastropods, pelecypods, cephalopods, scaphopods), and sponges; one of the great places on the planet to find fossils some 307 to 299 million years old.
  • Fossil Plants Of The Ione Basin, California: Head to Amador County in the western foothills of California's Sierra Nevada to explore the fossil leaf-bearing Middle Eocene Ione Formation of the Ione Basin. This is a completely undescribed fossil flora from a geologically fascinating district that produces not only paleobotanically invaluable suites of fossil leaves, but also world-renowned commercial deposits of silica sand, high-grade kaolinite clay and the extraordinarily rare Montan Wax-rich lignites (a type of low grade coal).
  • Trilobites In The Marble Mountains, Mojave Desert, California: Take a trip to the place that first inspired my life-long fascination and interest in fossils--the classic trilobite quarry in the Lower Cambrian Latham Shale, in the Marble Mountains of California's Mojave Desert. It's a special place, now included in the rather recently established Trilobite Wilderness, where some 21 species of ancient plants and animals have been found--including trilobites, an echinoderm, a coelenterate, mollusks, blue-green algae and brachiopods.
  • Early Cambrian Fossils Of Westgard Pass, California: Visit the Westgard Pass area, a world-renowned geologic wonderland several miles east of Big Pine, California, in the neighboring White-Inyo Mountains, to examine one of the best places in the world to find archaeocyathids--an enigmatic invertebrate animal that went extinct some 510 million years ago, never surviving past the early Cambrian; also present there in rocks over a half billion years old are locally common trilobites, plus annelid and arthropod trails, and early echinoderms.
  • A Visit To Ammonite Canyon, Nevada: Explore one of the best-exposed, most complete fossiliferous marine late Triassic through early Jurassic geologic sections in the world--a place where the important end-time Triassic mass extinction has been preserved in the paleontological record. Lots of key species of ammonites, brachiopods, corals, gastropods and pelecypods.
  • Fossils In Millard County, Utah: Take virtual field trips to two world-famous fossil localities in Millard County, Utah--Wheeler Amphitheater in the trilobite-bearing middle Cambrian Wheeler Shale; and Fossil Mountain in the brachiopod-ostracod-gastropod-echinoderm-trilobite rich lower Ordovician Pogonip Group.
  • Paleozoic Era Fossils At Mazourka Canyon, Inyo County, California: Visit a productive Paleozoic Era fossil-bearing area near Independence, California--along the east side of California's Owens Valley, with the great Sierra Nevada as a dramatic backdrop--a paleontologically fascinating place that yields a great assortment of invertebrate animals.
  • Late Triassic Ichthyosaur And Invertebrate Fossils In Nevada: Journey to two classic, world-famous fossil localities in the Upper Triassic Luning Formation of Nevada--Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park and Coral Reef Canyon. At Berlin-Ichthyosaur, observe in-situ the remains of several gigantic ichthyosaur skeletons preserved in a fossil quarry; then head out into the hills, outside the state park, to find plentiful pelecypods, gastropods, brachiopods and ammonoids. At Coral Reef Canyon, find an amazing abundance of corals, sponges, brachiopods, echinoids (sea urchins), pelecypods, gastropods, belemnites and ammonoids.
  • Fossils From The Kettleman Hills, California: Visit one of California's premiere Pliocene-age (approximately 4.5 to 2.0 million years old) fossil localities--the Kettleman Hills, which lie along the western edge of California's Great Central Valley northwest of Bakersfield. This is where innumerable sand dollars, pectens, oysters, gastropods, "bulbous fish growths" and pelecypods occur in the Etchegoin, San Joaquin and Tulare Formations.
  • Field Trip To The Kettleman Hills Fossil District, California: Take a virtual field trip to a classic site on the western side of California's Great Central Valley, roughly 80 miles northwest of Bakersfield, where several Pliocene-age (roughly 4.5 to 2 million years old) geologic rock formations yield a wealth of diverse, abundant fossil material--sand dollars, scallop shells, oysters, gastropods and "bulbous fish growths" (fossil bony tumors--found nowhere else, save the Kettleman Hills), among many other paleontological remains.
  • A Visit To The Sharktooth Hill Bone Bed, Southern California: Travel to the dusty hills near Bakersfield, California, along the eastern side of the Great Central Valley in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, to explore the world-famous Sharktooth Hill Bone Bed, a Middle Miocene marine deposit some 16 to 15 million years old that yields over a hundred species of sharks, rays, bony fishes, and sea mammals from a geologic rock formation called the Round Mountain Silt Member of the Temblor Formation; this is the most prolific marine, vertebrate fossil-bearing Middle Miocene deposit in the world.
  • In Search Of Fossils In The Tin Mountain Limestone, California: Journey to the Death Valley area of Inyo County, California, to explore the highly fossiliferous Lower Mississippian Tin Mountain Limestone; visit three localities that provide easy access to a roughly 358 million year-old calcium carbate accumulation that contains well preserved corals, brachiopods, bryozoans, crinoids, and ostracods--among other major groups of invertebrate animals.
  • Middle Triassic Ammonoids From Nevada: Travel to a world-famous fossil locality in the Great Basin Desert of Nevada, a specific place that yields some 41 species of ammonoids, in addition to five species of pelecypods and four varieties of belemnites from the Middle Triassic Prida Formation, which is roughly 235 million years old; many paleontologists consider this specific site the single best Middle Triassic, late Anisian Stage ammonoid locality in the world. All told, the Prida Formation yields 68 species of ammonoids spanning the entire Middle Triassic age, or roughly 241 to 227 million years ago.
  • Fossil Bones In The Coso Range, Inyo County, California: Visit the Coso Range Wilderness, west of Death Valley National Park at the southern end of California's Owens Valley, where vertebrate fossils some 4.8 to 3.0 million years old can be observed in the Pliocene-age Coso Formation: It's a paleontologically significant place that yields many species of mammals, including the remains of Equus simplicidens, the Hagerman Horse, named for its spectacular occurrences at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in Idaho; Equus simplicidens is considered the earliest known member of the genus Equus, which includes the modern horse and all other equids.
  • Fossil Plants At Aldrich Hill, Western Nevada: Take a field trip to western Nevada, in the vicinity of Yerington, to famous Aldrich Hill, where one can collect some 35 species of ancient plants--leaves, seeds and twigs--from the Middle Miocene Aldirch Station Formation, roughly 12 to 13 million years old. Find the leaves of evergreen live oak, willow, and Catalina Ironwood (which today is restricted in its natural habitat solely to the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California), among others, plus the seeds of many kinds of conifers, including spruce; expect to find the twigs of Giant Sequoias, too.
  • Fossils From Pleistocene Lake Manix, California: Explore the badlands of the Manix Lake Beds on California's Mojave Desert, an Upper Pleistocene deposit that produces abundant fossil remains from the silts and sands left behind by a great fresh water lake, roughly 350,000 to 19,000 years old--the Manix Beds yield many species of fresh water mollusks (gastropods and pelecypods), skeletal elements from fish (the Tui Mojave Chub and Three-Spine Stickleback), plus roughly 50 species of mammals and birds, many of which can also be found in the incredible, world-famous La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles.
  • Field Trip To Pleistocene Lake Manix, California: Go on a virtual field trip to the classic, fossiliferous badlands carved in the Upper Pleistocene Manix Formation, Mojave Desert, California. It's a special place that yields beaucoup fossil remains, including fresh water mollusks, fish (the Mojave Tui Chub), birds and mammals.
  • Trilobites In The Nopah Range, Inyo County, California: Travel to a locality well outside the boundaries of Death Valley National Park to collect trilobites in the Lower Cambrian Pyramid Shale Member of the Carrara Formation.
  • Ammonoids At Union Wash, California: Explore ammonoid-rich Union Wash near Lone Pine, California, in the shadows of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. Union Wash is a ne plus ultra place to find Early Triassic ammonoids in California. The extinct cephalopods occur in abundance in the Lower Triassic Union Wash Formation, with the dramatic back-drop of the glacier-gouged Sierra Nevada skyline in view to the immediate west.
  • A Visit To The Fossil Beds At Union Wash, Inyo County California: A virtual field trip to the fabulous ammonoid accumulations in the Lower Triassic Union Wash Formation, Inyo County, California--situated in the shadows of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.
  • Ordovician Fossils At The Great Beatty Mudmound, Nevada: Visit a classic 475-million-year-old fossil locality in the vicinity of Beatty, Nevada, only a few miles east of Death Valley National Park; here, the fossils occur in the Middle Ordovician Antelope Valley Limestone at a prominent Mudmound/Biohern. Lots of fossils can be found there, including silicified brachiopods, trilobites, nautiloids, echinoderms, bryozoans, ostracodes and conodonts.
  • Paleobotanical Field Trip To The Sailor Flat Hydraulic Gold Mine, California: Journey on a day of paleobotanical discovery with the FarWest Science Foundation to the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada--to famous Sailor Flat, an abandoned hydraulic gold mine of the mid to late 1800s, where members of the foundation collect fossil leaves from the "chocolate" shales of the Middle Eocene auriferous gravels; all significant specimens go to the archival paleobotanical collections at the University California Museum Of Paleontology in Berkeley.
  • Early Cambrian Fossils In Western Nevada: Explore a 518-million-year-old fossil locality several miles north of Death Valley National Park, in Esmeralda County, Nevada, where the Lower Cambrian Harkless Formation yields the largest single assemblage of Early Cambrian trilobites yet described from a specific fossil locality in North America; the locality also yields archeocyathids (an extinct sponge), plus salterella (the "ice-cream cone fossil"--an extinct conical animal placed into its own unique phylum, called Agmata), brachiopods and invertebrate tracks and trails.
  • Fossil Leaves And Seeds In West-Central Nevada: Take a field trip to the Middlegate Hills area in west-central Nevada. It's a place where the Middle Miocene Middlegate Formation provides paleobotany enthusiasts with some 64 species of fossil plant remains, including the leaves of evergreen live oak, tanbark oak, bigleaf maple, and paper birch--plus the twigs of giant sequoias and the winged seeds from a spruce.
  • Ordovician Fossils In The Toquima Range, Nevada: Explore the Toquima Range in central Nevada--a locality that yields abundant graptolites in the Lower to Middle Ordovician Vinini Formation, plus a diverse fauna of brachiopods, sponges, bryozoans, echinoderms and ostracodes from the Middle Ordovician Antelope Valley Limestone.
  • Fossil Plants In The Dead Camel Range, Nevada: Visit a remote site in the vicinity of Fallon, Nevada, where the Middle Miocene Desert Peak Formation provides paleobotany enthusiasts with 22 species of nicely preserved leaves from a variety of deciduous trees and evergreen live oaks, in addition to samaras (winged seeds), needles and twigs from several types of conifers.
  • Early Triassic Ammonoid Fossils In Nevada: Visit the two remote localities in Nevada that yield abundant, well-preserved ammonoids in the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, some 240 million years old--one of the sites just happens to be the single finest Early Triassic ammonoid locality in North America.
  • Fossil Plants At Buffalo Canyon, Nevada: Explore the wilds of west-central Nevada, a number of miles from Fallon, where the Middle Miocene Buffalo Canyon Formation yields to seekers of paleontology some 54 species of deciduous and coniferous varieties of 15-million-year-old leaves, seeds and twigs from such varieties as spruce, fir, pine, ash, maple, zelkova, willow and evergreen live oak
  • High Inyo Mountains Fossils, California: Take a ride to the crest of the High Inyo Mountains to find abundant ammonoids and pelecypods--plus, some shark teeth and terrestrial plants in the Upper Mississippian Chainman Shale, roughly 325 million years old.
  • Field Trip To The Copper Basin Fossil Flora, Nevada: Visit a remote region in Nevada, where the Late Eocene Dead Horse Tuff provides seekers of paleobotany with some 42 species of ancient plants, roughly 39 to 40 million years old, including the leaves of alder, tanbark oak, Oregon grape and sassafras.
  • Fossil Plants And Insects At Bull Run, Nevada: Head into the deep backcountry of Nevada to collect fossils from the famous Late Eocene Chicken Creek Formation, which yields, in addition to abundant fossil fly larvae, a paleobotanically wonderful association of winged seeds and fascicles (bundles of needles) from many species of conifers, including fir, pine, spruce, larch, hemlock and cypress. The plants are some 37 million old and represent an essentially pure montane conifer forest, one of the very few such fossil occurrences in the Tertiary Period of the United States.
  • A Visit To The Early Cambrian Waucoba Spring Geologic Section, California: Journey to the northwestern sector of Death Valley National Park to explore the classic, world-famous Waucoba Spring Early Cambrian geologic section, first described by the pioneering paleontologist C.D. Walcott in the late 1800s; surprisingly well preserved 540-510 million-year-old remains of trilobites, invertebrate tracks and trails, Girvanella algal oncolites and archeocyathids (an extinct variety of sponge) can be observed in situ..
  • Petrified Wood From The Shinarump Conglomerate: An image of a chunk of petrified wood I collected from the Upper Triassic Shinarump Conglomerate, outside of Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado.
  • Fossil Giant Sequoia Foliage From Nevada: Images of the youngest fossil foliage from a giant sequoia ever discovered in the geologic record--the specimen is Lower Pliocene in geologic age, around 5 million years old.
  • Some Favorite Fossil Brachiopods Of Mine: Images of several fossil brachiopods I have collected over the years from Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic-age rocks.
  • For information on what can and cannot be collected legally from America's Public Lands, take a look at Fossils On America's Public Lands and Collecting On Public Lands--brochures that the Bureau Of Land Management has allowed me to transcribe.
  • In Search Of Vanished Ages--Field Trips To Fossil Localities In California, Nevada, And Utah--My fossils-related field trips in full print book form (pdf). 98,703 words (equivalent to a medium-size hard cover work of non-fiction); 250 printed pages (equivalent to about 380 pages in hard cover book form); 27 chapters; 30 individual field trips to places of paleontological interest; 60 photographs--representative on-site images and pictures of fossils from each locality visited.

United States Geological Survey Papers (Public Domain)

Online versions of USGS publications

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