Geological and Environmental Sciences

Chico State Miocene Fossil Finds

In 2020, fossils from the Miocene period dating back 8 to 15 million years were discovered in the foothills south of Sacramento. The ongoing excavation of the site is being led by Professor Russell Shapiro, a nationally recognized expert in geobiology and paleontology.


What was found?

Miocene fossils

  • 8-million-year-old mastodon skull with both tusks intact
  • a rhino skeleton
  • a giant tortoise
  • 600 petrified trees
  • a horse
  • a tapir
  • an extinct species of camel that was as tall as a giraffe
  • four tusks from gomphotheres (elephant-like proboscideans)
And from the looks of it, there is much, much more. Stay tuned for an updated listing as more discoveries are unearthed.

Hand holding out fossil find

Where was it found?

An undisclosed location in the Sierra Nevada foothills south of Sacramento, in the Mokelumne River watershed. The fossil site now spans more than 12 miles and hundreds of acres.

Who found it?

An East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) park ranger made the initial discovery, finding petrified trees and vertebrate fossils. Russell Shapiro, Todd Greene, and others from Chico State led the excavation of the site, which resulted in the discovery of hundreds of significant fossils.

The team also consists of researchers from the University of California, Davis, and Sierra College, including Chico State alumnus Dick Hilton ('75), a national authority on dinosaurs and vertebrate paleontology.

Why is the find significant?

The site is considered to be one of the most significant fossil discoveries in California history. In addition to the sheer quantity of fossils, the variety of species is noteworthy. Additionally, mastodon remains were last found in the state in 1947. 

The bones paint a clearer picture of life 10 million years ago when animals evolved from living in forests to grassland as the landscape changed. 

How is the find tied to the University?

Professors, staff, and students from the Geological and Environmental Sciences Department at Chico State led the excavation of the site and are processing and preserving the fossils that have been found. A public exhibit of the fossils will be at the University's Gateway Science Museum in fall 2021.

Chico State is one of only a few universities in Northern California that is federally sanctioned to collect and store fossils.

Students can help prepare the fossils that will eventually be sent to the University of California Museum of Paleontology or used at the new museum exhibit.

“We have more projects than we know what to do with,” Shapiro said. “There are lots of opportunities for new students.”

Shapiro, department chair and sedimentology professor Todd Greene, several staff members, and a handful of students continue to make regular treks to the site, usually discovering at least one fossil.

What’s Next?

Many of these fossils are being studied at Gateway Science Museum and are on public display in the Fossils Lab.

A new exhibition, Fossils & Formations, opens October 22, 2021, and will feature these Miocene fossils. The exhibit traces the complex geological past of the North State from the deep sea creatures of the Triassic to the megafauna of the Pliocene.

To learn more about the upcoming exhibit, sign up for Gateway’s newsletter(opens in new window).

Relevant Degrees and Classes

Degrees

Classes

GEOS 643 Applied Paleontology
Prerequisites: GEOS 303, GEOS 307

This course trains students in the fundamentals of paleontological resource management. As an applied course, students integrate governmental regulations with the scientific method and client budgetary demands.

A significant objective is to provide students with the practical experience to be able to apply for work as a "Paleontological Monitor" during environmental impact studies. This course makes extensive use of bibliographic and other resource materials.

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