Understanding the history of our own Earth is a bit easier than understanding the history of other worlds. On a good day, a random person walking across a random field or along a random cliff face has a non-zero chance of discovering fossils sticking out of the earth. The tongue twister “she sells seashells by the seashore” actually tells the real-world story of Mary Anning, a self-made expert in fossils who made her living making careful observations and then collecting and selling fossils from the cliffs near Dover.
While it’s hard to imagine this kind of “huh, there is a massive fossil find in front of me” discovery today, it can happen. In the summer of 2020, a park ranger named Greg Francek was walking near the Mokelumne River watershed outside Sacramento and spotted what appeared to be a petrified tree. And then another petrified tree. And eventually, even fossils of animals all randomly scattered in what he and others would come to realize is a petrified forest that dates back to the Miocene epoch, about ten million years ago.
This epoch is best known for the emergence of giant mammals, with early versions of the horse, camel, and sloth littering the fossil record. And mastodons. This was the age of mastodons, and in this newly discovered petrified forest, Francek and a team from the Cal State Chico campus discovered a fully intact mastodon skull with the long tusks still attached.
This COVID-lockdown era discovery was protected initially by luck, and now will be protected under the United States Paleontology Preservation Act. In the coming months, researchers from additional institutes will join the search for this new fossil find.
This is a reminder that the only thing separating a scientist from a non-scientist is the reporting of data. It is unknown how many myriad hikers had seen this park’s petrified wood and maybe even pocketed a few fossils. All it took to make this discovery was the curiosity to ask “what is this” and the scientific follow through to report what was found.
Trove Of Fossils Discovered In Mokelumne River Watershed Near Valley Springs (Good Day Sacramento)
California Park Ranger Discovers Massive Cache of Miocene Epoch Fossils (Ancient Origins)