My early childhood memories of Bakersfield consists of waiting for three days in a very hot and dusty place for repairs to be made to our family car. It was a 1936 V-16 Cadillac limousine and the parts had to come from Los Angeles, about six hours away in those days before freeways. I had never been back to Bakersfield since then, so when the opportunity came my way to go on a fossil dig located near there, it seemed that I owed that town another visit.
Of course, Bakersfield is much larger and much nicer than I had remembered, with the lovely Kern River flowing through the middle of the downtown area. There are nice hotels, good restaurants, and a lovely riverwalk along the Kern River. Bakersfield has come a long way in fifty years!
Among other things, Bakersfield is renowned for being the location of Sharktooth Hill, a world famous location for Miocene era marine and land mammal fossil specimens. 15 to 16 million years ago, the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley (where Bakersfield is located) was an arm of the Pacific Ocean with a river flowing into it. Mammals and animals died and were deposited in a 6 to 12 inch bone bed, carried there by the river or died in place in the marine environment. The most notable layer is called the bone bed, compressed to about 6 inches in thickness and containing no sediment. There are at least 141 different species of land, marine and air creatures represented in the bone bed, as well as another younger sedimentary layer about 4 feet above the bone bed. This fossil layer, called the Miocene Round Mountain Silt, covers about 110 square miles in the lower Joaquin Valley but is only exposed here near Bakersfield.
It was first discovered in the 1860’s by railroad surveyors and gold miners. Today, you can collect your own fossils for a reasonable fee by contacting the Buena Vista Natural History Museum in Bakersfield. They have contracted with Robert and Mary Ernst, owners of three quarries on the Hill, to do several sponsored digs a year. In addition, you can also do a fee dig directly through the Ernsts through their own website, sharktoothhillproperty.com.
My friend Peggy and I decided that it would be fun to collect fossils instead of rocks for a change, with shark’s teeth being our main collecting goal. This would be her first fossil dig and my third, making us real novices in the fossil world. I have previously collected trilobites in hard gray shale in Delta, Utah and fossil fish in the oil shale at Kemmerer, Wyoming. At those two sites, the rocks are all ready mined, ready to be split by the prospective collector—no hard digging or having to break rocks with heavy equipment.
This fossil dig for sharksteeth would involved a little more work, with picks, shovels, screens and some muscle to get through the clay layer that covers the bone bed. However, the bone bed itself has been uncovered by grading to remove the 25 to 60 feet of overburden—good thing!!!
We arrived ready in Bakersfield all fired up and ready to go on our two-day dig, meeting our group at the Natural History Museum for orientation. The Museum itself is a real treasure, containing a multitude of stuffed animals, gems and mineral specimens, but most importantly the fossil collection of Bob Ernst who was responsible for starting the museum in 1995 with Mike Metz, a geologist. Bob Ernst was a self taught paleontologist who collected and preserved over 2 million fossil specimens from his private quarries. He dug for over 40 years part time until retirement and then daily after retiring, and was credited for uncovering 8 previously undiscovered new species before his death in 2007. It is thanks to him and his foresight that we were able both to enjoy his finds at the museum and to go dig our own “finds”. We were given time to take a good look at the fossils in the cases for help with identifying our own finds, very important for us novices! We also purchased a nice little booklet from the gift shop with color pictures and measurements of the more common sharks teeth and whale, dolphin, sea lion and turtle fossil bones we were likely to encounter.
After our orientation, we caravanned about 8 miles east of Bakersfield to an area called Oildale—-one of the old Chevron Oil Co. pumping fields which is still being used today. The fossil quarries are located in the middle of the oilfields in a privately owned area, consisting of clay hills (hot and dusty in summer). We were taken to the West Quarry East for our first day’s dig, which is the newest and least dug of the three Ernst Quarries. Most of our fellow diggers were quick to pick out a promising spot, but were very helpful in aiding us in digging techniques and likely spots for digging. Robert Ernst also showed us where and how to dig, and very patiently guided us in our quest. We had the choice of digging in the wall of the quarry which had both the younger fossil layer in the sediment and the lower layer of hard bone bed to dig in, while the floor of the quarry contained the thick layer of bone bed under about 4 inches of hard clay.
We first tried the wall and succeeded in finding shark’s teeth, shrimp burrows and some bones. This involved swinging the pick into the wall to remove the soil above and below the fossil layers—-harder work than digging in the floor, or so it seemed. Next we tried digging into the floor with our picks and shovels, using our screens to find the smaller teeth and fossils. We found more shark’s teeth, dolphin teeth, coprolite, and dolphin ear bones, as well as a couple of turtle inner bones. As we proceeded to dig, we noticed that a lot of the pros were taking a different approach, just laying on their sides and slicing through the layers with a sharp knife with a 6 inch blade. They were keeping their teeth intact instead of breaking a few like we did with our overzealous shoveling and picking! No Megalodon teeth were found that day, but one young man who has been digging there for 20 years, starting when he was just 5 years old, found a nice big walrus tooth. It was the fourth one and the best one he had found in all the years of his digging. He sure did move more dirt than anyone else, being rewarded for his efforts with many nice specimens for his collection.
Our second day of digging was in danger of being cancelled due to rain. Now you might ask, does it really rain in Bakersfield? The real issue seemed to be the clay hills/roads which turn to sticky gumbo at just a few drops of rain, impossible to drive in when it really gets wet. It was decided by our leaders that the group would go to Slow Curve Quarry which was about 2 miles from the paved road and only had one hill to navigate on the way out, to give us a much better chance of exiting the site safely. This quarry is much smaller in area than the West Quarry East, but is noted for being more productive for finding those coveted Megalodon teeth. Again, everyone quickly chose a spot to dig, either in the wall or in the floor of the quarry. The rain was holding off so we really got serious about making good use of our time—-no slacking off today! We began finding some really nice shark’s teeth but very little bone, far different than the other quarry which had many huge bones of all kinds. Then, we heard a big whoop and holler from the quarry wall—–Megalodon tooth in sight!
Everyone came running with cameras and advice, telling the novice digger to be very careful and dig around it very slowly so as not to break it. Apparently good teeth have been broken over the years by carelessness and haste—-heartbreaking after all the work you put into digging for it. He was successful in getting it out of the surrounding clay and bone, completely intact, 4 1/2 inches long and in perfect condition. This was only his third weekend of digging with his brother as his teammate—-needless to say, they were ecstatic in achieving their prize so soon into their new hobby of digging for shark’s teeth. Then, another whoop and holler, again from someone digging in the wall. This time, the Megalodon tooth was a very small back tooth about 1 inch long and 1/2 inch wide with the root intact. It seems that this back tooth is a much rarer find than the big teeth, therefore worth quite a bit more to a collector.
About that time, it really started to rain big drops, and the clay got stickier and sticker, caking on our shoes as we gathered up our tools and treasures. After we got to the truck, we scraped some of the muck off of our shoes, then made our way up the slippery hill in four wheel drive (didn’t help much), slid slowly around a curve and finally made it to pavement. We were so happy to have had the pleasure of a new experience that we didn’t mind being wet and muddy for a while. After we got home, we had more fun cleaning off the big whale vertebrae and other bones that we brought back with us. The curator at the Buena Vista Natural History Museum had encouraged us to clean the dirt off the bones carefully, looking for micro-teeth in the dirt. Sure enough, we found some really tiny Angel Shark teeth in that dusty clay. Even better, I uncovered a very nice hooked-tooth Mako shark tooth still in place on a nice complete vertebrae! For me, that was my best find of the whole trip!