One of the largest California fossil discoveries ever made has been found to include the remains of ancient mastodons, fish, and other mammals.
Locked amid the fossilized remains of a petrified forest, they were discovered by a local government ranger in the Mokelumne River basin southeast of Sacramento, and are now making headlines across the paleontology world.
Believed to be from the Miocene Era of about 10 million years ago, East Bay Municipal Services District ranger Greg Francek was in the area to work when he found the first fossilized tree, half buried in the ground.
“I looked around the area and found a second tree,” Francek said in a EBMUD statement released this week. And then a third and so on. After finding dozens of trees, I realized that what I was seeing were the remains of a petrified forest. “
After millions of years, forests and trees buried in the ground “petrify” or turn into minerals; from the Greek word “petra” which means stone. There are 19 petrified forests in the US, ranging in size from simply tree stands to forests the size of a national park.
Francek took three weeks to survey the area to find his first vertebrate fossil; a chunk about twice the size of your razor, broken in three places.
“What I did not understand at the time [of the initial find]”He said,” it was the astonishing fact that I was looking at the bones of great beasts that had roamed this landscape millions of years ago. “
Francek then reached out to all the geology and paleontology experts in the area as quickly as he could. Soon a team arrived from California State University, Chico, to begin excavating the fossils.
The bones of two elephant cousins, camels, rhinos, horses, turtles and even a toothed salmon weighing 400 pounds were later discovered there in what is one of the largest individual discoveries in the state’s history.
The most charismatic of Francek’s ‘Great Beasts’ was undoubtedly the complete skull of an American mastodon with all its teeth and magnificent fangs intact, the first discovery in the area since 1947. It takes more than four days of work and eight people to loaded onto a truck, the two-tusked mastodon roamed the Earth more than 10 million years ago before going extinct during the Pleistocene, just 12,000 years ago.
A gomphothere, a shorter cousin of the mastodon that sported four fangs, but died about 6 million years ago, was also discovered. Its massive jaw required the help of a backhoe to lift it off the ground.
Beyond this pair of tusked titans, remains of merychippus, the three-toed progenitor of the modern horse, tapirs, single-hump camels, and even rhinos were also discovered there. One of the most challenging excavations was a species of Miocene salmon, which judging by the skeleton, which was equipped with a mouthful of teeth, could weigh as much as 400 pounds.
State and federal government protections for the area have started since its discovery, and the next step in the story is to try to analyze the classic scientific questions: why are the finds there, and how did they die.
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