- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

JOHN DAY, Ore. (AP) - It’s hard to imagine, in the dry heat and sagebrush of Eastern Oregon, that the region was once a lush tropical forest.

Dig back 50 million years into the fossil record and one can find evidence of palm leaves, avocado trees and even crocodiles inhabiting the prehistoric landscape. Gradual changes over millions of years led to a dramatic shift in climate, shaping the modern ecosystem and evolving species that thrive today.

Scientists know this thanks to an impressive array of fossils preserved by volcanic activity, and the efforts of paleontologists who extract and study the ancient bits of life uncovered by erosion.

As Oregon celebrated National Fossil Day on Wednesday, paleontology remains alive and well at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument where new discoveries have a profound impact on understanding the distant past.

Josh Samuels is the monument’s chief of paleontology and museum curator at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, located in the Sheep Rock Unit. He and his staff of three hike into the field at least once or twice per week, searching for fossils they can bring back to the lab and display in their collection.

Not only do they work within the monument itself, but also they collaborate with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management prospecting the surrounding public lands.

“There’s never a shortage of things for us to do,” Samuels said. “Erosion is constantly happening. Fossils are constantly being exposed, and if we don’t go out, find and collect them, they would ultimately turn into dust.”

Every fossil is unique with its own history to tell, Samuels said. Hundreds of plants and animals have been traced back to what is now the state of Oregon, and fossils can provide insight about the time and place they once lived.

The oldest fossils in the monument can be found in the Clarno Formation west of the city of Fossil, dating back approximately 40-50 million years. More than 60 species of tropical forest plants have been identified from fossilized wood in the area, similar to what is found today in places like Central America.

Slowly but surely, the planet began to change. Antarctica broke free and iced over about 25 million years ago, which reflected more light back into space and contributed to global cooling. Locally, the Cascade Range created a rain shadow effect over the eastern foothills and transformed the region into an arid plateau.

Native animals either adapted or vanished in their new environment. Modern horses learned to run and graze over open grasslands as forest habitat died out. A species of mammal known as oreodonts - or “ruminating hogs,” which were once as abundant as deer or elk today - never adjusted and eventually went extinct.

Meanwhile, volcanic activity created multiple layers of lava flows and ash over the land, preserving fossils deep within the rock. Samuels and his staff works with Boise State University on dating the sediment, which establishes an approximate age for any fossil they can find. Fossils in the John Day beds span anywhere from 50 million to 5 million years old.

“As the climate and environment changed in the past, we can look at how plants and animals changed in one place,” Samuels said. “You don’t really see that anywhere else in North America.”

Because of the unique opportunity, the fossil beds monument hosts numerous educational programs, school classes and university researchers eager to explore and learn more about discoveries.

The museum’s collection features roughly 70,000 different fossils, everything from camels to rhinos and 10 different types of dog dating back 25-30 million years. Once a fossil is recovered, it is brought back to the center’s lab where the paleontologists carefully extract it from rock using specialized tools such as an air scribe. Samuels compared the delicate process to removing a teacup from a slab of concrete.

“It’s very precise and time-consuming,” he said.

Currently, Samuels is studying the 27-million-year-old remains of Ekgmowechashala, an ancient lemur-like animal that was the last known primate in North America before humans. He has also published papers on the world’s oldest type of fisher, members of the weasel family. Remains found at the John Day Fossil Beds pushed the fossil record on the species in North America back another 5 million years.

“We’re preserving these fossils that really belong to everyone, and using them to better understand the past,” he said.

By studying the past, Samuels said science can better predict how certain animals will respond to predicted global changes into the future. That way, they can identify which species are most ready to adapt and which species are in need of increased protection.

“(Paleontology) is something that can help us predict how things will change in the future,” Samuels said. “It allows us to make predictions and understand what things might be most adaptable and what things might be most vulnerable to extinction.”

The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is located at 32651 Highway 19 south of the community of Kimberly in Grant County. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and can be reached at 541-987-2333.


Information from: East Oregonian, https://www.eastoregonian.info

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