The tooth fairy payment was astronomical
In the famed Sharktooth Hill Bone Bed near Bakersfield, Calif., shark teeth as big as a hand and weighing a pound each, intermixed with copious bones from extinct seals and whales, seem to tell of a 15-million-year-old killing ground.
Yet, new research by a team of paleontologists from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and the University of Utah paints a less catastrophic picture. Instead of a sudden die-off, the researchers say that the bone bed is a 700,000-year record of normal life and death, kept free of sediment by unusual climatic conditions between 15 million and 16 million years ago.
The team’s interpretation of the fossils and the geology to establish the origins of the bone bed, the richest and most extensive marine deposit of bones in the world, are presented in the June 2009 issue of the journal Geology.
The mix of shark bones and teeth, turtle shells three times the size of today’s leatherbacks, and ancient whale, seal, dolphin and fish skeletons, comprise a unique six-to-20-inch-thick layer of fossil bones, 10 miles of it exposed, that covers nearly 50 square miles just outside and northeast of Bakersfield.
Since the bed’s discovery in the 1850s, paleontologists have battled over an obvious question: How did the bones get there? Was this a killing ground for megalodon, a 40-foot version of today’s great white shark? Was it a long-term breeding area for seals and other marine mammals, like Mexico’s Scammon’s lagoon is for the California gray whale? Did a widespread catastrophe, like a red tide or volcanic eruption, lead to a massive die-off?
The new and extensive study of the fossils and the geology of Sharktooth Hill tells a less dramatic story, but an important one, for understanding the origin of rich fossil accumulations, said Nicholas Pyenson, a former UC Berkeley graduate student who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia.
“If you look at the geology of this fossil bed, it’s not intuitive how it formed,” Pyenson said. “We really put together all lines of evidence, with the fossil evidence being a big part of it, to obtain a snapshot of that period of time.”
Pyenson and his colleagues, totaling five UC Berkeley Ph.D.s and UC Berkeley integrative biology professor Jere Lipps, hope that the study will draw renewed attention to the bone bed, which Lipps said needs protection even though a small portion of it was added to the National Natural Landmark registry in 1976.
“This deposit, if properly developed, would look just like Dinosaur National Monument,” said Lipps, referring to a popular park in Colorado and Utah. “(Sharktooth Hill) is actually much more extensive, and the top of the bone bed has complete, articulated skeletons of seals and other marine mammals.”