Natural History Set in Stone

- Blog

Paleontologists fill in gaps in the Northwest’s fossil record on shorelines conserved by Columbia Land Trust.

Amateur paleontologists Jim Goedert and Bruce Theil examine fossil
Amateur paleontologists Jim Goedert and Bruce Theil examine fossil. Photo Credit: Sarah Richards.

It’s hard to believe that much of the area along the I-5 corridor from Olympia to the Columbia River, known as the Willapa Hills, was underwater 50 to 20 million years ago. In this guest post by the Columbia Land Trust, we learn how these fossils found on land trust land offer a peek into history. Read the original article here.

 

Sea lion skull
Sea lion fossil skull from Land Trust site. Snout pictured left, eye sockets in center. Photo courtesy of Sam A. McLeod of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

The year was 1978. Amateur paleontologists Jim and Gail Goedert were exploring the Columbia River tidal flats on what is now Columbia Land Trust-protected land. For their excursion, they packed rock chisels, petite hammers, and old newspaper.

As the lowering tide steadily pulled back soot and sediment, the couple spotted one particular, medium-sized rock amidst a shoreline full of similar stones. Jim took note of a fissure on the rock’s surface, and a nodule protruded from its side. With one gentle tap, the rock opened, and a time long ago revealed itself inside the concretion.

Jim and Gail had found the skull and teeth of a primitive whale dating back 25 million years, to a geological epoch known as the Oligocene.

It’s hard to believe that much of the area along the I-5 corridor from Olympia to the Columbia River, known as the Willapa Hills, was underwater 50 to 20 million years ago. Marine creatures of this period lived at an ocean depth between 100 and 900 meters—up to nearly 3,000 feet.

Vertebrates and invertebrates were preserved in concretions that have since eroded from landslides into the Columbia River, giving us a glimpse into the life that once existed and teaching us about a time, the climate, and species, some of which have never been seen in the flesh.

Clam fossils
Clam fossil cluster from Land Trust site. Photo Credit: Sarah Richards.

Over the years, Jim and Gail Goederts found many more notable findings on the Land Trust site, including more than 100 whale specimens (such as skulls and teeth), sea lion remains, and the oldest published albatross fossil from the North Pacific Basin.

These fossils have made it possible for scientists to fill in pieces of our region’s geological puzzle.

“The presence of these fossils gives us such rich clarity of the distant past,” says Columbia Land Trust Stewardship Director Ian Sinks, “as well as perspective on how to best manage these lands for the future.”

Hiking land trust property
Stewardship Director Ian Sinks hikes property with Godert and Thiel. Photo Credit: Sarah Richards.

Columbia Land Trust conserved 452 acres at this important fossil locality in 2012, including 133 acres of shoreline, to protect intertidal wetland habitat for threatened salmon species, and to protect hillside forests for watershed processes and wildlife habitat. In addition, this conserved site along the Columbia River is now being monitored so discoveries can be preserved for future generations of researchers.

“Land conservation is sometimes the first step in understanding natural history,” explains Ian.

Today, the primitive whale skull Jim and Gail discovered as well as many other finds from the Pacific County site reside in museums throughout the world. When those who come after us look back on our time, the history scribed on paper won’t have the same permanence of stone or the impact of the pioneers working to protect and educate the world around us.