Sometimes it is a secret treasure. Cracked open, the contents might reveal a little gem, a fossil no human being has ever seen.
Last summer, paleontologist-geologist Frank Perry led a nature walk down to the sandbars of the San Lorenzo River, where we began happily hammering away at very ordinary looking stones.
Eureka! Suddenly, the amateur rock hounds were jumping up and down.
They encircled Perry three deep, showing him their exhumations. “What’s this, Frank?” “What’s this?”
“That’s a fossil clam,” he answered, “and that’s a leaf imprint.” We were the proverbial kids in a candy store.
After we had mined our quarry, we packed up our booty and headed south on the river walk at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, following the luminous San Lorenzo. At the convergence of Eagle Creek and the river, Perry pointed out where the sedimentary rock collides with formations of granite, an igneous rock found in mountain cores.
Although Perry is busy creating a new exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, we have decided to offer this nature walk again Aug. 14. Perry will take maps that identify local faults, landslides and flood plains, as well as sharks’ teeth found in Scotts Valley, sand dollars from Bean Creek and a mammoth’s tooth from Año Nuevo.
Please e-mail me if you are interested in participating in this free walk sponsored through an environmental education grant from the San Lorenzo Valley Water District.
Perry’s exhibit, “Bones: An Inside Look at Nature,” will introduce the 5-million-year-old baleen whale that was discovered last year by a man walking on a Santa Cruz beach. A fossil from the Pliocene epoch, the whale’s teeth confirm that it was a meat-eater, related to the modern-day orca and dolphin.
Child-friendly, interactive exhibits will educate the public on such concepts as how to identify whether an animal was an herbivore or carnivore by looking at its teeth and whether an animal was predator or prey by looking at its eye sockets.
“Half of the museum will be filled with skeletons that we’ve never had the room to exhibit,” Perry said. “You could say I’m taking the skeletons out of the closet.”
Many of the fossils that the museum will feature were found by the public and identified by Perry.
“You would have to go to natural history museums in Los Angeles or San Diego to see a display of the paleontology-based bones we will be showing,” he said. “A few years ago, the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco had a special exhibit on skulls that was hugely successful.”
How did the man find the baleen whale? “He had educated himself and trained his eyes to see things. An untrained eye can walk right by it and not see it,” Perry explained.
Catch “Bones: An Inside Look at Nature” at the Museum of Natural History from Oct. 2 through Feb. 28. Perry thought a date around Halloween would be a good time to have an exhibit on bones.
Carol Carson is an environmental activist who writes a regular nature column for the Press Banner. She has been a docent at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and taught courses on Big Basin State Park for UCSC Extension. She can be reached at email@example.com.