Fossil Fest provides glimpse into vast Oregon history

Mike Full, of Willamette Valley Pleistocene Red Rocks, meets and chats with community members as they explore the various fossils at his table. Full operates field trips to dig sits during the summer where anyone can try their luck at finding something. (Photos by Nugesse Ghebrendrias)

Saturday’s Fossil Fest at the Hatfield Marine Science Center provided community members with a unique educational experience on the science behind archaeology and paleontology, but also a glimpse into ancient local and semi-local history.

All afternoon on Feb. 8, local archaeologists and fossil experts shared their personal collections of history, along with pertinent information on just how they were and are able to find them.

Mike Full, of Willamette Valley Pleistocene Red Rocks, displayed fossils of multiple animals including teeth and a large thigh bone from an adolescent mammoth.

Full’s findings from the McMinnville Mammoth site near the Yamhill River stretches far beyond mammoth remains as his study shows a variety of five other big animals, or megafauna: mastodon, sloth, bison, horse and camelid.

“This part of Oregon is all covered in silt, debris and new dirt, basically, and if you cut down through that, usually through a stream or river, you erode out the bank, and you get down to an area that is over 12,000 years old,” Full said. “It’s almost as though you are back in the Pleistocene in Oregon, and think of that like a North American Serengeti.”

The varying types of elephants, giant bison, horses and sloth are an example of the uniqueness of the area.

“Along with all those, there was the stuff that ran around and chased them and ate them: the dire wolf, the grey wolf. The giant short-faced bear was here, an American lion and the saber-tooth cat,” Full said. “The predators are so rare; we are still looking for most of them.”

Full explained that while those predators will be uncovered over time, there have been developments in that regard — including one such animal that resonates well with Oregon residents, especially Oregon State University faithfuls.

“If you think of a beaver the size of a black bear, that’s what it was,” Full said. “It was kind of cool because Oregon is the beaver state, and we’ve got the giant Pleistocene beaver in Oregon for the very first time. It turns out we’ve got three beaver fossils from the giant Pleistocene beaver.”

Full also showed remains of a Bison Alaskensis at the Fossil Fest, explaining it had to be sent to Idaho to be looked at by the University of Idaho where they confirmed the finding. Full’s group is assisted by Dr. William Orr, curator of the Condon Museum of Natural History at the University of Oregon, as well.

“There is all this stuff waiting to be discovered here,” Full said. “Our oldest fossils are in excess of 55,000 years old, and our newest fossils are probably around 10,000-12,000 years old.”

Caren Anderson, Full’s niece and part of his group at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, showcased her own finding at Fossil Fest, a large bone associated with a Pleistocene sloth.

Compared to the other pieces at the event, Anderson’s might’ve been the largest fossil at the event. But Anderson isn’t a scientist, archaeologist or paleontologist, she was just there to help during one of her uncle’s excavations.

“We were helping out of King’s Valley after lunch, and we went into a section that had been covered up most of the day,” Anderson said. “We started digging in there and all of a sudden we felt something in the very thick mud. We felt the bone and as we uncovered it, we realized it was a very large piece.”

They pulled the bone up and out of the dig site, and they determined it was a femur from a Harlan’s ground sloth.

“Since I was just a helper, I don’t know enough about anatomy to really see and tell what I was looking at. I just knew I had a very large piece of something,” she said. “As soon as we pulled it out, Mike was able to tell us, ‘that’s a piece of a femur, and here’s where it would be located.’”

Anderson’s discovery is one of many sloth-related finds near the Yamhill Rivers as one tooth, a humerus, a partial scapula, two sloth digits, some vertebra and a rib are among the fossil remains of the ground sloth.

The most famous sloth fossil — a sloth cranium — was found back in the 1960s in the South Yamhill River by a McMinnville resident and has become a reference in the history of animals history.

Full and his partners at the Fossil Fest table explained that the sloth wasn’t uncommon in the area, and the sheer size of the animal left heavy, robust bones that were less likely to be destroyed before preservation.

Along with fossils found more inland within the state of Oregon, there were many coastal fossils, as well, including a whale’s brain.

Commercial Harbormaster for Newport and local resident Ken Gibson showcased some of his findings, ranging from smaller fossils to large, robust pieces.

“Most of the fossils are from the Astoria formation here local, probably 15 million to 22 million years old,” Gibson said. “All these fossils here on the tables have all been found about 10 miles from here.”

Gibson showcased a cast of a marlin that is now in the Smithsonian. He made a deal with the institution to offer his items, but in return he received a cast of the items.

It’s taken Gibson about 23 years to collect all the fossils and casts that he has now, including one he got with the help from one of his buddies.

“The first one I ever found, I (tried) to throw away, but I had a black lab that was a rock hound, so as I’m walking up to my truck to put my agates away, and he brought this fossil back after I threw it and dropped it on my foot,” Gibson said. “Anyway, I threw the rock into the back of my pickup and headed off home and I reached into the bucket and I looked at this rock. It was staring at me it looked like, because you could see the two nostril holes.”

It turns out that rock, or what Gibson thought was a rock at first, wound up at the Smithsonian, as well. Which just goes to show, you never know what you are going to find out there.

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