24 March 2010

Notes From a Golden Age

Apologies for the text color issues with this post; Blogger is either acting up today or I'm being an idiot. Either way, as an unredeemable perfectionist, I find it even more annoying than you do.
I spent last week visiting Oregon's southern neighbor, primarily the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, and while native Northwesterners are inherently distrustful of Southern California (LA is the Mordor to the Northwest's Rohan, with the Bay Area playing the role of Gondor in this cumbersome and hopelessly nerdy analogy), speaking purely as a paleontologist, I have to admit it's an exciting place to be right now. In fact, as the collections manager of one of the museums I visited opined, this really could be considered the golden age of Southern California paleontology.
Many people don't appreciate the wealth of the fossil record around LA and San Diego, but it really is remarkable. Everyone is familiar with the carnivores, birds, ground sloths, and ungulates of Rancho La Brea, of course, but it's far from the only Pleistocene site in the region (perhaps even more remarkable are the pygmy mammoths of the Channel Islands, the most unusual members of a unique fauna). Go back to the Pliocene and beyond and you find several remarkable marine mammals, including early baleen whales, walruses, desmostylians, and giant sea cows. Of particular interest to me are the land mammals of the Miocene, which are found in almost unbelievable abundance in the Barstow Basin and in the canyons of the Coast and Peninsular Ranges. San Diego County has its own (though, it must be said, somewhat less spectacular) answer to the Oligocene faunas of Oregon and South Dakota as well as one of the continent's better-preserved Eocene ecosystems. There are even some dinosaurs and Cretaceous marine reptiles, the tip of Baja California's iceberg.
And these fossils have plenty of people around to collect them. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has one of the best vertebrate fossil collections in the country, and the San Diego Natural History Museum, San Bernardino County Museum, and Raymond Alf Museum (associated, unusually, with a high school) are none too shabby either (the San Diego museum has one of the nicest collections facilities I've seen, and I've visited a great many museums over the course of my dissertation research). Remarkably, all four of these museums either have opened or will soon be opening new paleontology exhibits (again, San Diego really excels here; more on this in a later post, if I get around to it). Several universities in the area are among the leaders of North American paleontology; UCLA and USC are probably the most prominent, but several smaller universities in the area have active research programs as well. The only loser in the world of Southern Californian paleontology at the moment is Santa Barbara, who's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis recently lost John Alroy to Australia and who's natural history museum, while housing some excellent Channel Islands specimens, has no active paleontology program of which I'm aware (though it's worth noting that UCSB is one of the regional departments with a paleo program).
I'm not in the habit of heaping praise on Southern California (so much so that I feel compelled to point out that the collections of Berkeley's UC Museum of Paleontology are still the best on the West Coast). That said, this is an economic climate in which science, along with everybody else, has had to make many cutbacks, some of them very regrettable, and to see paleontology not only surviving, but thriving somewhere in the country is encouraging. May we all soon be following their example.

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