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Have you seen the Eocene? Dig your own fossils!

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Education & Research

As I write these notes I’m looking at the branch of a healthy ponderosa pine. It’s full of life and it’s probably older than me.  About an hour ago I was holding the remains of a much older tree branch — a cedar that grew in nearly the same place 49 million years ago!  There’s nothing like a geologic timescale to make you feel young by comparison.

My contact with ancient fossils came about at the Stonerose Interpretive Center, an interactive museum and dig site in Republic, Washington.  Director Catherine Brown (right) showed me around the museum’s small but impressive collection of fossils.  All of them had been unearthed at Stonerose’s dig site a short walk away.  Many had been discovered by children enjoying a fossil-digging adventure during class visits.  For a modest admission, visitors can dig their own fossils and take a few home.  In the interest of science, though, an expert gets to check your finds for significant specimens worthy of further study.

The Stonerose dig site dates to the Eocene epoch, 56 to 34 million years ago.  It was a time after dinosaurs, but early in the age of mammals.  Some families of plants and animals might be familiar to us today, but many of the individual species would not.  The area around Republic was a lake at that time.  The remains of many plants, animals, fish, and insects were buried under volcanic ash sediments in the ancient lake bed.  Undisturbed for millennia, these bones, twigs, and debris fossilized in the shale layers being uncovered daily by experts and visitors alike.

I asked Brown to show me her favorites from the collection.  She smiled, as if to ask “how can I pick favorites?”  With so many intriguing and extinct species to choose from, she began pointing at the cases on display — which included the beautiful Florassantia flower fossil that gives the center its logo — and led me to the archive room where countless more fossils lay tagged and stored in drawers.  One wall housed an uncatalogued trove of yet-to-be-scientifically studied insect fossils.

Stonerose (shown here) has thousands of specimens showing life in the Eocene world of long ago. During the course of my visit, Brown pointed to the 21 fossils on our list today.

  • Location: 15-1 North Kean, Republic, WA 99166. It’s on Highway 20, across the street from the park.
  • Hours: Open May through October. Check the website for specifics.
  • Phone: 509-775-2295
  • Website: StoneroseFossil.org

CATHERINE BROWN’S PICK OF FOSSILS AT STONEROSE

Insects

Propalosoma gutierrezae. An extinct wasp found by Karen Gutierrez. It was scientifically described in 1999.  “It’s fantastic,” said Brown. (On public display.)  See larger image.
Palaeopsychops marringerae. An extinct giant lacewing named for Regina Marringer. It was found by a fourth grader and described scientifically in 2005. (On public display)
Palaeopsychops timmi. An extinct giant lacewing named for Thomas Timm  and described in 2005. (On public display)

 


Fish

Eosalmo. Brown said that the Chris Marlinga was full of confidence the morning he unearthed this fish — July 15, 2002. Knowing that Stonerose releases common fossils but retains significant ones for scientific study, he said “I’m going to find something you’re going to keep!”  He was right.  He came back with the oldest, most complete salmon ever found in North America. (On public display.)  See larger image of head.
Unidentified fish. Okay, I’ll admit that this was MY favorite fossil in the Stonerose collection.  It’s not on display yet and it hasn’t even had rigorous scientific study yet.  But the preservation of the fine bone detail is undeniable even to a non-scientist like me.  Brown showed me this specimen near the end of my visit as a wonderful example of how the rock beautifully split the fossil in two mirrored halves.  There’s paleontological beauty in that, too.  It was found by Kathy Armstrong in 2012. (Not on public display.)  See larger image of right half.

 


Birds

Unknown species.  This bird feather in stone was found by Steve Hines. (On public display.)
Unidentified bird found by Becky Stocker, June 3, 1999.  Brown said that this specimen was misidentified at first as some kind of fruit.  It remained in that state for ten years until it was studied under magnification and was found to be the skeleton of a small bird — the first ever found at Stonerose. It may be difficult to make it out in the photo, but the large shape at the top, right of center, is the bird’s cranium.  The vertebrae extends down and to the left from there.  The straight vertical bone left of center is a wing. (On public display.)

 


Flowers

Florissantia quilchenensis.  This remarkable lobed flower fossil was found by Wes Wehr and Lisa Barksdale and studied extensively.  Florissantia is an extinct flower of the cocoa tree family that flourished in parts of western North America during the Eocene, but the very best specimens have come from Stonerose.  This individual fossil is perhaps the best preserved of all.  It has become the logo for the Stonrose Center and was the lead photograph in a July 2002 National Geographic article on the evolution of flowering plants.  The veins within the petals are visible on close inspection. (On public display.)  See larger image.

 

Florissantia. This shows another Florisaantia flower (like the one above) folded on its side.  The stem is still attached.  Gavin Hooper found this fossil in July, 2006. (Not currently on public display.)

 


Trees

Cupressaceae cedar branch. This large fossil, chipped from the Stonerose quarry in parts and later fused together, reveals exquisite detail on two levels. Its fine needles on the micro scale is as impressive as the branching form it preserves on the macro scale. It was found by Vitya Collier and Richard Montgomery in May, 2005. (Not currently on public display.)
Metasequoia occidentalis. The branch of an extinct dawn redwood tree was found by Terry Madsen July 8, 1999. (On public display.)
Malus. The modern cultivated apple derives from tree varieties in Turkey and Kazakhstan, but Washington state is the world’s leading apple grower in the 21st century. How fitting, then, that this specimen found at Stonerose by Wes Wehr, has been identified as the world’s oldest leaf from an apple tree. (On public display.)
Sassafras hesperia. Leaf from an extinct sassafras found by William Bagley, June 19, 1998. (On public display.)
Crataegus. Hawthorne leaf. Suzy Renn of Bellevue found this leaf Aug 16, 2001. (Not currently on public display.)
Gingko biloba. Found by Mariann Faulkner, Aug 29, 2002. (On public display.)
Macginitiea gracilis. This leaf from an extinct sycamore was found by Barry Nevin July 9, 2000. (On public display.)
Macginitiea gracilis. Another well-preserved sycamore leaf was found by John Hemmerling of British Columbia, July 1, 2005. (Not currently on public display.)  See detail.
Macginicarpa. Fruit of a sycamore. This was found Apr 28, 2007, by Lance Fritts of Riverside, WA. (Not currently on public display.)  See detail.
Pinaceae catkins. These catkins cones were found by Karl Volkman, Sep 25, 2003, Cones. (Not currently on public display.)  See larger image.
A cone from an unidentified conifer cone. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of this fossil is the texture.  It’s bumpy relief shows the unmistakable rows of a pine cone buried in rock.  It feels like a pine cone.  Theresa Greene found this fossil May 11, 1996. (Not currently on public display.)  See detail.
Acer washingtonense. Wingseed. Even though it looks like a seed dropped today in your back yard or neighborhood park, this particular specimen hit the ground tens of millions of years ago. It was found by Zena Johnson in 2008. (Not currently on public display.)

 

PHOTOS © by Steve Campion.

SOURCE:  We thank Catherine Brown for personally showing us these fossils and permitting them to be photographed.  It was a treat to see such wonderful treasures up close.  Brown also proofed the identifying information pre-publication.  Several of the fossils shown here were studied, identified, and described at the Burke Museum in Seattle and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

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One Response to “Have you seen the Eocene? Dig your own fossils!”

  1. Joan Says:

    Some superb specimens there. The plants especially are so finely chiseled they appear to be just laying there still freshly fallen. The rocks are appear to be mostly sandstone.