25 June 2017

An Eocene Critter


[Mostly reminiscence of 25 June 1963; Camp Hancock, near Fossil, Oregon, when I was twelve]
U
p at reveille again, in line for breakfast, mail call and announcements. I probably got letters from home today and I ate a couple of pieces of toast. We went to the Mammal Beds, where forty million years or so before a river had piled up small bones in silt, to be left relatively undisturbed until Lon Hancock had discovered the site.
They were currently in the process of excavating the ribcage of some extinct mammal about the size of a small pig; as this was the opening of the season they spent most of the time unwrapping the layers of canvas put there the year before to protect the fossil bones from weathering. We were given this explanation before being set to work chiseling out material from the side of the exploratory pit. I looked at pieces of discarded matrix, splitting them open to see if I could find anything.
For the most part there was nothing, but finally, in one of them was the remains of a small mammal. It was just a tooth and a jaw fragment, or something of that sort. I wasn’t even sure that it was real at first, but when I showed it to one of the counselors he confirmed that it was a tooth.
I stared at the remains of the little critter, marveling how it had been born, spent its small life, and died so long ago, and no one else had known of its existence until me, some sixty million years later. As far as I can recall, nothing else of interest turned up during this particular expedition, but I was so blown away by my fossil fragment they could have discovered a mastodon and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
This being a science camp, when we got back I was set to work identifying it, and I went through the books in the library (a big building with lab equipment, instruments, and books, with one side entirely open to the elements). There was a guide to fossils there that you could use to quickly narrow down what you’d found, but it led me nowhere. The tooth looked odd; there was nothing quite like it in the guide, or in the books there, as far as I could see. Seeing I was in trouble a counselor said he thought he could help me out, and brought me one of his own books from his trailer. I looked through it, turning page after page, until I found a tooth that looked similar to mine. I showed it to the counselor, and he agreed with me that I had found it.
It was, as I remember it, something in the Multituburculate order, a long-extinct group of mammals. Although I’ve retained a fondness for this group over the years on the strength of that identification, I am now dubious about it, since as far as I can tell nothing of that sort has ever turned up at the Hancock fossil bed. Possibly I misidentified it, or possibly my memory is off, and I identified the fossil tooth as something else, and only later confused it with the multituburculates. Nobody thought it was anything amazing, anyway—just a neat find. I’d planned to do further research on it when I got back to civilization and had the resources of a full library.
Next year—I note parenthetically—when one of my tentmates found a fossil amphibian apparently unknown to science all hell broke loose, and the thing was carefully packed and sent off to the Smithsonian for further identification. My tentmate was upset as hell—what was the point of finding the thing if he didn’t get to keep it for his own collection? I didn’t say this, but I would have given one of my own teeth to have discovered an unknown amphibian and had my fossil end up at the Smithsonian.
The fate of my little multituburculate, if that’s what it was, is unknown. I had it tucked away in a box with some other nice specimens—a couple of perfect leaves, a conifer fossil, a bit of purple zeolite that was striking in appearance—that I kept under my bunk. I don’t know exactly what happened, but one day midway through the camp session I went to put something in the box—and it was empty. Everything in it—gone. The only conclusion I could reach—and I came to it very reluctantly—is that one of my fellow-campers had stolen it. I searched the entire area of my bunk without success, and eventually had to give up on it.
That doesn’t affect the base narrative here—that some small seed-eating critter lived and died forty million years ago or so during the middle of the Eocene, and that enough of her bones washed up in a silt formation to be fossilized and recognized on a June day in 1963. I would have liked to nail down her identification enough so that I could form some idea of what she had looked like, how she had lived, and how she might have died—but the awe and mystery of that moment of discovery remain regardless.

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