If there is one thing that older millennials have one thing in common is this: We all grew up watching the Jurassic Park movie franchise, prompting many of us to dream of becoming a paleontologist someday.
I’m now 35, and while I outgrew the silly dream of becoming a paleontologist, I have developed a habit of collecting fossils for some weird reason. Fortunately, I moved into a new home near Sharktooth Hill, a locality in the Sierra Nevada foothills that lies near Bakersfield, California.
Aside from Sharktooth Hill, what I love most about my new home in Smoke Tree Mobile Home Park is its convenient location–it is near Sequoia National Forest, McMurtrey Aquatic Center, and Beale Park Amphitheater.
A Fossil Hunter’s Paradise
Around 16 million years ago, Central California was an ocean of shallow water teeming with life, including giant prehistoric killers called megalodon, ancient turtles three times bigger than today’s leatherbacks, massive sea lion-like creatures called allodesmus, and sperm and baleen whales.
Meanwhile, the surrounding patches of land were populated by giant sloths, ancient camels and horses, and prehistoric relatives of elephants called mastodons. And in the nearby mountain range poured a great river, believed to be the ancient origin of the Kern River that now stretches 165 miles long.
For more than 150 years, paleontologists and amateur fossil hunters alike have collected “ancient treasures” from Sharktooth Hill and the nearby area reaching Kern County.
The Sharktooth Hill Bone Bed gives us a glimpse of the nearshore ocean life during the middle Miocene, about 16 million years ago. All paleontologists agree that it is the richest and most extensive marine bone deposits in the world, with about 200 bones per square yard and covers around 50 square miles northeast of Bakersfield.
Debunking the Myth
Since the bed bone’s discovery in the 1850s, experts have argued over how the bones got there. Some paleontologists suggested it could be from massive extinction caused by a widespread catastrophe such as volcanic eruption, while others said that the high concentration of bones could mean it was a killing ground for giant prehistoric sharks that fed on seals and other marine animals.
However, scientists did not find volcanic ash and so they ruled out a one-time catastrophic event that led to a massive die-off. They also examined more than 3,000 fossil bones and found that only five had shark bites, so they excluded the idea of Sharktooth Hill being a prehistoric killing ground.
Most paleontologists nowadays believe that the high concentration of fossils was caused by water currents, which created this big pile of bones.
Encouraging Future Paleontologists
The local museum frequently organizes “fossil digging” events to fund its operation and educational programs. They even offer a special rate for families, perhaps to encourage young children to become paleontologists or scientists. But the coolest thing about their events is that they allow the attendees to keep all the teeth and fossils, except those considered rare and those with articulated frames.
The actual Sharktooth Hill is a National Natural Landmark, so you can’t dig there unsupervised or without permission. However, a local family (Ernst) owns a large portion of property near this famous bed bone and they allow visitors to search for fossils for a fee.
My Own Experience as a Fossil Hunter
Last year I met Rob Ernst, the guy who runs the “Ernst Quarries,” when I decided to sign up for their fossil hunting adventure. He gave us an excellent tour and helped us identify our finds.
I enjoyed the whole experience even though it was hot and dusty. Fortunately, I brought a shade and gallons of water because I was planning to collect more specimens.
Some word of advice: For someone not in the mood to do heavy digging, it is easy to find small teeth on the surface. But if you’re aiming for something bigger, you need more patience, elbow grease, and luck.
Just in case you’re interested in fossil digging adventure, I included some information about the Ernst Quarries “tourism package.”
*Admission fee – $40 (with group discounts)
*Time of check-in – between 7:45 and 8:15 at the staging point (All attendees should have a vehicle; hikers and walkers are not allowed.)
*All tools are provided.
*Children under 18 must be accompanied by adults; younger than five are not allowed.
*Schedule – select Thursday through Saturday
*Contact details – 661-319-7080
*Diggers can keep everything they can find except scientifically significant fossils, i.e., rare specimens, skulls, and articulated assemblage of bones. (These “special” fossils” will be surrendered to the museum.)