Photo credit: Carolyn Van Houten
When you’re a paleontologist, you had better get used to fielding questions from children. In general, that’s a good thing. They mean well, and I like being kept on my toes. Also, I know that I have to raise my game for the deceptively tough but straightforward questions, such as the inevitable, “Can I find a fossil in my backyard?” The answer, if I’m honest, has to be, “Depends on where you live.”
The odds of finding a fossil aren’t evenly spread across the world. There are a lot of reasons why desert sand dunes, jungle canopies, and glaciers might obscure the rocks that enclose fossils — the tangible evidence of past worlds. And if you’re interested in finding a specific kind of fossil — in my case, those belonging to whales — you need to be in the right place. If your backyard includes the sea cliffs of Lincoln County, Oregon, then you just happen to be in the right place to find a fossil whale.
Oregon is loaded with fossils. Its eastern parts include famed painted badlands that spill out the bones of squat camels, three-toed horses, and crested near-rhinos. That record tells the story of a much hotter and wetter time, tens of millions of years ago, interrupted by many episodes of volcanic doom. There are also breathtaking, frozen-in-time fossil plants, the shells of extinct brachiopods, and the coiled ones belonging to ammonites from much older rocks throughout the state. But Lincoln County is the epicenter for any bones belonging to extinct whales.
Located on the western edge of the state, the county is mostly forested land and winding picturesque coastal roads, except for the gray- and coffee-colored strata peeking out along sea cliffs and river beds. These unassuming rocks, from about 15 to 30 million years old, capture an unusually rich record of ancient marine mammals: some of the oldest filter-feeding whales; the first sea cows in the Pacific Ocean (no longer there, unfortunately); early seals; ancient bears with grinding molars like sea otters; and even hippolike herbivorous mammals called desmostylians, whose distinctive teeth look like a handful of Crayola markers bound together by an elastic band. (Desmostylians are among the few marine mammal groups that are completely extinct). You can hardly avoid the words “Lincoln County” when you study fossil marine mammals, really.
Each one of these fossils illustrates a strange past world for whales.
People have known about these fossil riches from coastal Oregon since the 1840s — from a time when the word “paleontologist” didn’t exist. In fact, collectors of all kinds, amateurs and professionals, young and old, have driven the stream of scientific discoveries from Lincoln County for over 150 years. All it takes to participate, after all, is a sharp eye and the persistence to turn over boulders lodged in the sand that may contain the glint of bone. Today, scientists tend to have narrow specialties and academic credentials because of the years of training and study that it takes to know about any small branch on the tree of life. But in the 19th century, people were rarely exclusively one kind of scientist; instead, they were just naturalists, gregarious and peripatetic, sometimes with conflicting worldviews, maybe uncredentialed, but always engaged with the thrilling process of collecting evidence of Earth’s past.
One particularly prominent example was a minister named Thomas Condon. His enthusiasm for collecting fossils pulled him from Ireland to Oregon, where he eventually settled with his family and became Oregon’s first state geologist. Condon was a rock-pick-on-the-Bible kind of naturalist, which really wasn’t unusual at the time: like many others on the frontiers of new knowledge, he saw no conflict between knowing about the ages of rocks and the rock of ages. Condon did, however, distinguish himself from other collectors in his later years through extensive correspondence with the most influential paleontologists, who connected him to expertise and institutions a continent away — such as the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
Condon died in 1907, a year after he formally described his first fossil marine mammal, an extinct seal that he named Desmatophoca oregonensis
. (Its skull and jaws are on display at the UO Natural History Museum in Eugene.) Condon’s network and collections outlasted him, especially at the Smithsonian, where my own predecessors studied, described, and named fossil species, new to science, from Lincoln County. For the past half-century, the Smithsonian has been the lucky recipient of yet more fossil marine mammal treasures found by Condons of the 20th century: people whose day jobs involved something other than paleontology, but whose interests took them to the fossil-rich seasides next to the Pacific Ocean just the same. Douglas Emlong, Guy Pierson, and Kent Gibson are among the many citizens of Oregon whose names are connected to the whale fossil record as much as the Latinized names bestowed upon the specimens that they collected. We archive everything in museums, and the social context is as important as the geographic, stratigraphic, and taxonomic ones. The main point of museums is the specimens that they house, and at the Smithsonian, specimens from Lincoln County number in the tens of thousands. So many, in fact, that I hardly need to venture farther than the cabinets outside my office to find treasures from Oregon’s lost worlds.
In my office, a stack of monographs — some dating to the days of Condon — sits next to a pair of calipers, a magnifying glass, a laptop, and fossil whales from Lincoln County, on a long wooden table. The fossils rest in open cradles, made of plaster and fiberglass, supporting the tan and brown fossils, with a lining of archival foam. Simocetus rayi
, represented by a skull heavy like a bowling ball, may be the first echolocating whale; its snout and nostrils look nothing like those of a bottlenose dolphin’s. Next to it is Aetiocetus cotylalveus
, a million-times-great ancestor of today’s gigantic baleen whales, yet its skull is the size and shape of a beat-up violin case, bearing teeth instead of baleen. On the floor, sitting on rolling cart, is a much larger skull (think cello case), belonging to a fossil baleen whale that awaits a scientific name. It is surprisingly older than Aetiocetus
, but it shows the next step in the evolutionary origin of filter-feeding. These three fossil whales lived in a strange ocean during a time period called the Oligocene, when the world shifted away from being a pole-to-pole greenhouse to a partially ice-covered one. The drawdown of sea level in this icehouse time gave us fewer spots in the world for rocks to be preserved from this time. This is ultimately the reason why there are so few places like Lincoln County on the planet.
Each one of these fossils illustrates a strange past world for whales. Crates and boxes housing many thousands more, all from Lincoln County, remain in the Smithsonian, some still not fully exhumed from their rocky covering. Who knows what strange new finds are literally right down the hall? Most importantly, every one of these fossils has its own history: not just a story from Deep Time that can be scrutinized from a whale’s life to death and burial, but also traced from its discovery on a storm-washed beach, to the hands of people who care for it, study it, and protect it for generations to come. That great arc, which can begin anywhere in the world and then end up safe in a cabinet, is the secret foundation to any museum. My job is made so much easier (and so much more fun) by the legacy of people who walk the beaches of Lincoln County in any kind of weather, watching for heavy waves that pull sand away to reveal a cobble or a boulder with a bit of bone, and a story from a lost world.
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is the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. His work has taken him to every continent, and his scientific discoveries frequently appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Popular Mechanics, USA Today
, on NPR, NBC, CBC, and the BBC. Along with the highest research awards from the Smithsonian, he has also received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the Obama White House. He lives with his family in Maryland. Spying on Whales
is his first book.