Fossils found in Fresno highway

A team of Fresno State students and paleontology monitors discovered mammoth and Camelops (a pre-historic camel) fossils last year during a Caltrans excavation of the Highway 180 West construction.
From April 2007 through August 2007, Dr. Robert Dundas and Associate Dean Dr. Fraka Harmsen led a team of Fresno State grad students that helped find the fossils. The students also helped with processes that the fossils go through after being removed from the site.

Fresno State had a $300,000 contract with Caltrans to do the paleontological monitoring during the construction of Highway 180 West.

“If it is found that there is a potential to run into fossils, then it can be required that the site be monitored by paleontologists, which was the case with Highway 180 West,” Dundas said.

Although not a lot of fossils are found in Fresno, the big construction sites have to be aware of environmental regulations surrounding them. CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, covers these types of projects.

Grad student Danny Tovar, 29, who is in the master of science program in geology, with an emphasis in paleontology, was one of the few students able to take part in the Caltrans 180 excavation.

“During the summer I had the opportunity to take part in excavations, which led to several discoveries of fossil material belonging to mammoth and Camelops,” Tovar said. “Finding fossils is always exciting.”

One of the reasons Tovar is excited about the fossils is that “the types of creatures present allow us to put the puzzle together in understanding the paleo environment and ecology that was present at the time.”

There were two types of formations found at the site: the Riverbank Formation, which produced all but one of the fossils, and the Turlock Lake Formation.

“The ages of the fossils found at the Turlock Lake Formation can be dated around 600,000 years in age and the Riverbank Formation is a little harder to date, but ranges from 150,000 to 400,000 years in age,” Dundas said.

The excavation process involves digging around the fossil to form a pedestal that the fossil is in. Then the pedestal is covered with strips of burlap sacks soaked in plaster to form a jacket that hardens onto the surface. The team is then able to remove the pedestal with the jacket around it and carefully remove the sediment to expose the fossil.

Once found, the fossils were prepared in a lab here on campus — room 260 of the Science I building. Since the sediment formed around the fossils is not hard, they can use dental tools and paintbrushes to remove it.

“The preservation of specimens is not particularly good,” Dundas said. “The fossils tell us something of our natural history in Fresno County and bring light to the species that once roamed this land.”

“Some people do not know that Central California was home to creatures such as mammoths, sabertooth cats, Camelops, etc,” Tovar said.

Criminology major Rayanna Yeaw, 21, was also excited about the news of the fossils.

“I have always been fascinated by fossils and things of that nature and to have them found right underneath somewhere I am driving on is pretty cool,” Yeaw said. “I really think that discoveries like this puts Fresno on the map even if they weren’t dinosaur fossils.”

These fossils will eventually be making their way into a museum. The Buena Vista Museum in Bakersfield has shown interest in obtaining and putting them on display, but Caltrans has the final say about where they will end up. Right now they are on display at the Caltrans office in the Manchester Mall for employees and family only.

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