Gateway Science Museum

Current/Upcoming Museum Without Walls (MWOW)

Fossils and Formations fall 2021 lecture series

Coming Wednesdays in October, 7 p.m. on zoom

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October 6th: Mastodons Among Us: A Paleontology Story Millions of Years in the Making

Hosted by Greg Francek, Ranger/Naturalist Mokelumne Division, East Bay Municipal Utility District

Ranger Greg Francek working in the field

Imagine a wild landscape of grassland, forests and erupting volcanoes… add a robust population of mammals including camels, rhinos, ancestral elephants and bone-crushing dogs — such is the scene during the late Miocene in what we know as present-day California. Join Ranger/Naturalist Greg Francek as he shares his account of the discovery of a significant northern California fossil deposit and the ongoing collaborative study being conducted by EBMUD, CSU Chico and Gateway Science Museum.

Greg Francek is a Ranger/Naturalist who is employed by East Bay Municipal Utility District in the Mokelumne Watershed of the Sierra Nevada foothills. As a patrol ranger, Greg’s work includes public safety duties such as; enforcement, wildland firefighting, Search & Rescue and medical response. His discovery of the Mokelumne fossil site has launched an intensive 1+ year on-the-job education in paleontology with a cadre of highly accomplished scientists. Away from his professional career he has many interests and outdoor pursuits. During three decades as a caver, Greg has participated in exploration, scientific study and filming in some of the world’s deepest and longest caves.  

October 13th: Sierran Volcanism, Paleo-River Valleys and the Miocene Zoo

Hosted by Professor Emerita Cathy Busby, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California at Davis 

Cathy Busby working in the field

One of the largest fossil troves in California was discovered only a year ago in the Sierra Nevada foothills, by East Bay Municipal Utility District Ranger Greg Francek. It is now the subject of intense study by paleontology professor Russell Shapiro (Chico State University) and his team. This site has excited intense scientific and public interest. The fossils include camels with necks as long as giraffes, rhinos, a mastodon skull with 6’ tusks, hundreds of fossilized logs, and much more. The extremely rich site records a time when the climate was cooling, and forests were being replaced by grasslands, where creatures of both habitats co-existed. The fossils are somewhat poorly-constrained to be between 5 and 10 million years old (Late Miocene), but geochronologic work in progress is expected to better constrain its age. This is because dateable volcanic pumice and ashes are abundant in the deposit.

What factors contributed to the creation and preservation of the Miocene zoo? Like many fossil forests world-wide, the silica in the ash deposits was dissolved by groundwater and precipitated in the fossils and the wood, resulting in their pristine preservation. But why were the creatures all buried together with the fossil logs, and where did the ashes come from? To answer those questions, we need to take a look at the paleogeography of the Sierra Nevada in Miocene time. 

Two important paleogeographic features created the Miocene zoo. The first is that paleo-river valleys flowed from east to west across the Sierra Nevada. These were carved into its bedrock and filled with river sediments (including gold nuggets) over tens of millions of years. The Miocene zoo lies in one of these paleo-river valleys, referred to as the Mokelumne paleochannel. The second important paleogeographic feature is that a chain of volcanoes lay along what is now the crest of the Sierra Nevada. This volcanic chain is referred to as the Ancestral Cascades arc, because it was like the present-day Cascades arc, which includes volcanoes such as Lassen and Shasta. Arc volcanoes may produce explosive eruptions that fill river valleys with pumice and ash, forming torrential floods or slurries that bury everything downstream. A large volcano, the size of Lassen, lay upstream of (east of) the Miocene zoo, at what is now the Ebbetts Pass area of the Sierra Nevada range crest. This provided the eruptive products that choked the river valley and buried the unsuspecting creatures that lived downstream.

Perhaps other fossil troves await discovery in other Sierran paleo-rivers in the foothills downstream from the Ancestral Cascades arc!

October 20th: Mass Extinction and the Real Jurassic Park: What Prehistoric California Corals can Teach Us About Today’s Crisis 

Hosted by Dr. Montana Hodges, Professor at Sierra Nevada University.

dr hodges holding a fossil

Most people are familiar with the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, but have you heard about the other “Big Five” mass extinctions that nearly wiped out all of life on Earth? Amazingly none of these other extinctions show direct evidence for catastrophic events like an asteroid impact. Instead, the tie that binds all the mass extinctions is global climate change and ocean conditions. One of the best climate and oceanic fossil record keepers through deep time are coral reefs, which fossilize extremely well, and have millions of years of data to share. The coral fossil record of California and Nevada shows one particular mass extinction record with eerily similar conditions to today. The Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction was caused by increased greenhouse gases, changing oceans, and collapsing ecosystems.

With biologists and ecologists proposing evidence that we are in the “Sixth Extinction” find out how the past might be able to tell us more about our present and future. Join Professor Hodges as she walks through the Big Five’s relationship to our modern biodiversity crisis through the story of coral reefs.

Montana Hodges is a paleontologist and science journalist who specializes in mass extinctions and science communication. She did her doctoral research on corals of the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction and the fossil evidence from North America. She is a professor at Sierra Nevada University and the author of six books. Hodges is often traveling to mass extinction fossil sites around the world searching for more corals waiting to tell their story. When not teaching in the Tahoe area, or traveling to the next fossil site, she fills her time with science dissemination projects especially communicating climate change, rescuing dogs and teaching skiing.

October 27th: From Mountains to Museums & Back Again: Triassic Marine Reptiles in the American West

Assistant Professor Neil P. Kelley, Department of Earth and Environmental Science, Vanderbilt University

Dr. Neil Kelley stands behind a number of prehistoric animal skulls.  He is holding a skull that includes a long beak and many small teeth.

After the most catastrophic extinction in all of earth history at the end of the Permian, multiple terrestrial reptiles successfully readapted to marine life. The evolution of marine reptiles in the Mesozoic was coincident with a top-down reorganization of marine ecosystems whose effects persist to this day long after the extinction of most of the Mesozoic marine reptile groups. Since the mid-1800s, the American West, including Shasta County in Northern California, has been a rich source for fossils that record this pivotal evolutionary transition. Unfortunately, due to a combination of factors including fragmentary fossils, complex tectonics and remote localities, the American Triassic marine reptile fossil record has been overshadowed by contemporaneous fossil assemblages from Europe and Asia. During the past several years, new discoveries in the field, as well as reappraisal of forgotten, misidentified or overlooked specimens in museum collections, have helped to fill in important gaps in our knowledge and reaffirm the important perspective provided by Triassic marine reptiles from the American West. This talk will review key historic and contemporary developments on this scientific frontier and explore what recent discoveries reveal about the evolution and extinction of Triassic marine reptiles and the ecological roles they played in an interval of global change.

Dr. Neil Kelley is a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist with a special interest in land animals that have re-adapted to life in the ocean such as seals, penguins and whales. He is particularly interested in extinct marine reptiles–including plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs–that were the apex predators in the oceans during the time of the dinosaurs. He has participated in fossil excavations in China and the western U.S. and visited museum collections around the world. His research has been featured in High Country News, Smithsonian Magazine Online and on National Pubic Radio. He attended Oberlin College for his undergraduate degree, completed his PhD at the University of California, Davis and worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Smithsonian Institution before coming to Vanderbilt University.

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