Carmel Church Day 6

With the rain driving us off the site, we set up a makeshift preparation lab in the hotel room and spent the day cleaning some of the fossils collected last week. In attempting to trench around the whale skeleton, we’ve had to remove numerous bones from the trench (there are still at least 5 bones in the trench awaiting removal). Three of the bones are from the flipper:

The bone on the right is one of the phalanges (finger bones). This one was crushed into the transverse process of a vertebra that was also removed (see Day 4).

I originally thought the other two bones were also phalanges, but now that I’ve cleaned them I think they are probably metacarpals (hand bones).

Here’s the vertebra that had to be removed, after being cleaned up:

This image is from in front and above (anterodorsal view). The left transverse process (on the right side of the image) is the one that was crushed against the phalange. The neural spine was missing (as this whale is upside down, the top of the neural canal was against the Eocene-Miocene contact). There were several flat bones adjacent to this vertebra that we also removed; it’s possible that one of them may be the detached neural spine.

Turning the vertebra over, we can see two features that identify this as a lumbar vertebra:

First, “A” is pointing to the essentially undamaged right transverse process. There is no facet at the end of this process for articulating with a rib, which rules out this being a lumbar vertebra. Second, “B” is pointing to the sharp ridge (the hypapophysis) that runs along the ventral margin of the vertebra. The hypapophysis in this case is a single sharp ridge. If this were a caudal vertebra, the hypapophysis would be bifurcated and have articular surfaces for the attachment of the chevron bones (see the photo of a caudal vertebra from Day 3).

There’s more rain in the forecast for tomorrow, but we’re still hoping to get in for at least part of the day.

For those interested in critters that have not yet become fossils, Tim is doing more entries on his blog about the wildlife in the area.

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5 Responses to Carmel Church Day 6

  1. Doug says:

    Sucks about the rain. At least you doing something. I have another question to keep you busy (inspired by a conversation i had this weekend on a trip). Alright, I remember how you explained why you collect all the whale post- cranial material at Carmel Church. At one point you mentioned that you have between 100-200 unopened jackets in the museum and then a likely equal size amount stored offsite. Now, why do you do several excavations a year at Carmel Church when the preparation work can’t keep up with the tide of new jackets?

  2. Alton Dooley says:

    I was wondering when someone would ask that question (Brett actually said last week “You know, if you have to stop collecting you still have enough material to last you until retirement.”)

    There are two answers, both somewhat related. First, a site like Carmel Church in particular won’t last forever. The locality is small, and lies in an area with high rates of erosion and a large and growing population; there are already houses within a thousand yards of the site, with a US highway and an interstate nearby. Even if everything goes perfectly, we’ll be lucky to get another decade or so of excavation there.

    Second, the role of a museum such as VMNH is research and curation. While we do as much research as we can, our first mission is to make sure that natural history specimens are preserved for future research.

    I was 20 years old when I first prepared a fossil whale in the lab. It had been collected in 1975, when I was 6 years old. That specimen was the subject of my undergraduate thesis, a chapter in my dissertation, and eventually became the holotype of Squalodon whitmorei.

    When I’m collecting, I really do expect to prepare and study everything. But realistically I know that’s unlikely, and I expect that when I die I’ll leave behind unopened jackets. But they’ll be safe and preserved for the next paleontologist that comes after me. We take the long view, and I like to imagine the following conversation taking place between a student and their advisor 100 years from now (not unlike conversations I had when I was a student, looking at the Smithsonian collections):

    “This jacket’s labeled ‘CCQ-2009-03.’ Hey, that’s one of Dooley’s Carmel Church jackets.”

    “Yea, Dooley wrote a lot of stuff about Carmel Church just after the turn of the last century. Of course, some of it was rubbish, but the site was new then, and he did get a lot of things right. Even so, he did a huge service collecting all this material. No one’s ever found another deposit like Carmel Church.

    “You know, the site’s not there anymore; in 2018 they built the high-speed rail line that connects Richmond and Washington right over it. He had to work like crazy to get the stuff out before they bulldozed it.”

    “Well, I guess we ought to open it up and see what he found. Every time we open one of these we find something unexpected.”

  3. Doug says:

    Very good reasons. I’ll keep those in mind next time the subject comes up. The person (senior curator of geology at the San Bernardino County Museum) said that if you don’t keep preparation up with curation, then your just a collector. I don’t think she meant it disrespectfully. Though the next day on my tour of the La Brea Tar Pits’ Project 23 I learned another reason why preparation could be slow: funding. Also, the crocodile ancestor Effigia was found in a jacket collected at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico in 1947! It was just sitting around the collections of the American Museum collecting dust.

  4. Alton Dooley says:

    Funding is an issue. If I had money to hire a full-time preparator, we could probably quadruple (or more) our preparation rate (since now it’s just me, and I have other duties). The key, though, is to not get caught up in the personal and immediate aspects of it. My goal is to have _someone_ work on the specimens I collect; I’d like it to be me, but it doesn’t have to be as long as it’s done eventually.

  5. Doug says:

    Again, if i could come in on my spare time and do prep work i would. If i didn’t live 2000 miles away.

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