Last month I had an amazing experience at our local Fossil Discovery Center, and while this topic goes a bit beyond my usual era, I wanted to share. Especially for those who may live near my area and haven’t made the trek out to the fossil museum–you shouldn’t miss this! The center is fairly new, the one-year anniversary of the center is on the 13th of this month (National Fossil Day), and is located adjacent to the site where the fossils were found, one of the largest fossil beds in the country–which also happens to be the Madera dump. Anyone remember the headline news from about ten years back when mammoth fossils were discovered in a California landfill? The mammoths were just the tip-of-the-tusk. Because this was a working landfill paleontologists had to cast and excavate fossils as fast as the massive machinery uncovered them. No time for meticulous sediment removal and identification. They have enough fossil casts (plaster jackets) waiting to be opened and examined to keep paleontologists busy for the next twenty years–and they are nowhere near done excavating. They’ve already uncovered 39 different species, from snails and rodents to the large predators like the saber-tooth cats. I had no idea, and it’s practically in my backyard. I’d heard the Fossil Center was in our county but had no clue it was only ten miles away!
If I hadn’t been looking for a social/learning/volunteer outlet for my boys, I likely would have remained clueless. A huge benefit to homeschooling my teens–which, sadly, is NOT loads of writing time–is how much I learn in the process. One major drawback to their independent study program is a lack of social interaction. Not wanting to encourage the total hermit lifestyle I happen to revel in, getting my kids involved in a public program was important and I thought a fossil museum/discovery center would be perfect. I called and was told, “Sure, bring them out and we’ll put them to work.” While visions of uninterrupted writing time danced in my head, my teenagers met that news with enthusiastic responses of, “Seriously? Do we have to? This is so stupid. Why are you punishing us?” Enjoying that chipper chorus all the way to the museum, I started to worry this great idea was going to go up in flames.
The paleontologist staff turned their grumbles into wide-eyed interest within ten minutes of stepping through the doors. Their enthusiasm for their work radiates like a palpable energy, and I think we were all a bit mesmerized by that energy and the massive scale of information and exhibits on display. After getting the grand tour, my kids were shooing me out the door, proclaiming four to five hours a few days a week would be great. A few weeks into it, they are just as enthusiastic, if not more so now that they are being trained to give tours and working with groups of elementary school kids who visit for field trips. My sixteen-year-old was telling me last week how he got the best feeling when a little girl running out to the bus stopped at the door and shouted back, “Thank you, Ethan!” Probably close to the happy feeling I got when he shared that with me–a moment that reminds you all your time and energy spent is worthwhile :)
I definitely recommend a visit to the Fossil Discovery Center or perhaps a similar facility in your area. I was surprised to learn the fossil bed covers more than 40 acres, one of the largest. The fossils are from the last Ice Age in the San Joaquin Valley, the Middle Pleistocene Epoch, and are as old as 780,000 years. Little has been uncovered about this time period, making the site extremely valuable, and it’s rare to find a location with so many species available, giving a clear picture of life in their natural environment. The most common fossils found on this site are herd animals; ancient horses, camels, mammoths and giant ground sloths. The exhibits are definitely something to see!