Why I’m (Mostly) A Cenozoic Guy

10 02 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

It’s fairly safe to assume that anyone who’s given so much as a passing glance to this humble corner of the ‘net is well-aware of my overall preference of prehistoric mammals to their reptilian counterparts, as evidenced by my heading, my ‘comments section’ avatar, and the appreciable majority of my posts.

However, you may be suprised to learn that I haven’t always been like this. In the fairly recent past, I, like the most paleontology enthusiasts, was completely smitten by dinosaurs, mosasaurs, pterosaurs, crocodylians, and their scaly brethren (in point of fact, for a time, I rather resented mammals due to the general public’s unfair tendency to invariably treat them with more respect and admiration than it would ever consider granting to any organism which doesn’t utilize milk). While I still adore these fascinating creatures, I’ve since shifted my focus primarily towards the hairy side of vertebrate paleontology.

To assist me in partially explaining this academic epiphany, I’ll utilize an excerpt from a recent interview with pterosaur expert Mark Witton who, in addition to being a spellbindingly-talented illustrator and writer, also seems to express quite a bit of enthusiasm about my beloved fossil mammals for, when asked to state his favorite era in Earth’s history outside the Mesozoic, he replied:

“The Cainozoic (known to Americans as the Cenozoic – ed.) is undeniably interesting because you can really trace the development of modern ecologies and environments across the fossil record. You can watch mammal lineages bed-hop between different ecological niches – different feliformes vying for the hypercarnivory niche, hyena-like dogs, hippo- and horse-like like rhinos, tapir-like elephants, giraffe-like camels, that sort of thing. Cainozoic fossils haven’t had so long to be chewed up by destructive geological processes and this means we have a much greater insight into what was going on and this allows surprising glimpses into even epochs of 20 million years ago. Plus, mammal teeth are very identifiable, hardy and abundant anyway, so we can get a really good idea which groups were around in different places and times. As such, while the familiarity of some fossil mammals means that they may be somewhat less spectacular or intriguing than the more outlandish Mesozoic and Palaeozoic forms that preceded them, the depth of information available about them makes them equally compelling critters to learn about. The Cainozoic is, therefore, a particularly detailed chapter in Earth’s history and it’s hard not to be really sucked into learning about it once you start digging around.”

I certainly couldn’t have said it better myself (although I’ll concede that while the abundance of fossilized mammal teeth certainly makes things more scientifically convenient, it also forces the lion’s share of virtually any paleo-mammology volume to degenerate into a ‘dentistry 101’ textbook).

Furthermore, while one would likely come to the conclusion that the ‘greater insight’ into Cenozoic life to which Witton refers would indicate that the amazing organisms the era contains are recieved with an enormous amount of esteem by the paleontological community, this isn’t the case, at least not to the degree anyone unfamiliar with our science is bound to assume. Indeed, a quick perusal of my blogroll alone will provide sufficient data to uphold the assertion that the majority of amature and professional paleontologists alike adhere to the study of extinct reptiles. Dinosaurs, I hardly need mention, boast an especially large following, but this fact is destined to recieve its own rant post.

I fully realize that this love of all things reptilian is perfectly understandable: after-all, the fact that we cannot consider ourselves to be members of the reptilia class by any definition alone is sufficient enough to secure the appeal of these creatures to the well-known region of our imagination which lends itself to be captured by anything it deems ‘alien’. However, in this regard, our psyche tends to pursue ‘foreign discovery’ to the expense of that which lies within our own metaphorical back yard. Although we may have more in common with cetaceans than sauropods, the former behemoths are just as fascinating, yet we overlook them for their comparative familiarity.

The paleontological community has thus reached the bizarre state of expressing our collective interest in a group of unfamiliar animals for being strange and intriguing, yet many of its members withold their enthusiasm for a relatively closely acquainted group in spite of their own strangeness and intrigue. This relative neglect is one of the most powerful forces which ultimately draws me towards the study of paleo-mammology, as I’m sure it does for a great many of us interested in the field.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!

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6 responses

12 02 2010
Doug

I hear you there. My interest in the Cenozoic came around some time in high school. Dinosaurs may my be bigger and more outlandish, but i find fossil mammals intriguing because they are “richly exotic yet strangely familiar). Also because we can see familiar animals taken in different and strange directions, like elephants with shovel jaws or flesh eating walruses. And because there are modern analogues for the majority of them it’s easier to see them as living animals. dinosaurs certainly have their high points, but aren’t all there is to prehistory (which is why if i ever get that museum idea off the ground, dinosaurs will be the ones to take the back seat, they will still be there, but at least on equal footing with the Cenozoic critters.)

14 02 2010
tanystropheus

We are in complete agreement!

I don’t believe that I’ve heard of your ‘museum idea’, although I find the concept of such an establishment designed to primarily (or at least largely) feature my beloved mammals positively wonderful! Out of curiosity, what are the details of this project?

14 02 2010
Doug

Details? Oh boy, I hope you’re settled in, because this is going to take a while. Basically I have this rather grand and unrealistic vision for creating a paleontology museum here on the Central Coast (few have heard it mentioned, but my girlfriend loves the idea). What kinda spurred the idea at first was the fossils I kept learning about that were from my own back (the Central coast= San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties). Growing up I often lamented not being raised in the badlands of Montana or Utah where fossils were well known. But over the last couple years I have been gladly proven wrong. From little bits here and there I have been able to learn that my home region is full of them. But the greater majority of them lay locked away in far flung institutes, mainly UCMP and Los Angeles. These fossils all have a story to tell, but no one is hearing them. Tired of hearing about these fossils getting scooped up and stuffed away into far flung collections, I decided maybe I try to do something about it. That was the first part.

14 02 2010
Doug

The second part came from reading about fossils being collected by private and commercial collectors. It just made my blood boil how people who collect for themselves or to sell fossils because they are worth a lot of money can hunt and dig for fossils but I couldn’t. Everyone hears about dinosaurs being for sale, but half the lot of an auction I came across was made of fossil mammals. Where was the chatter over them being sold? Also, hearing about unique specimens that sit away in collections and not being given a little time in the spotlight (Gomphotaria, Capricamelus, Gigantocamelus, Rhyncotherium, etc) while dinosaurs get multi-million dollar exhibit halls… I think you get the point. Also, marine reptiles get so much attention, but marine mammals always have to get crowded in with terrestrial mammals. My joint would have a section just for marine mammals. Lastly, the only large scale fossil halls in the west are in Los Angeles and Denver. The east has all these grand museums with expansive exhibits and collections. I wanted to try and create another one over here.

14 02 2010
Doug

Finally, there’s my sea cow. Since high school I have known of what could be a skeleton from a species of giant Pliocene sea cow. Over the last couple years I have been working trying to get it out. It’s slowly eroding away and no one seems interested in trying to collect it. I have made some progress in finding out who owns the land, but there haven’t been any developments in that area for quite some time. That was when I though that needs to be an institution on the Central Coast that collects fossils like this. Just because it’s a fossil we already have specimens of doesn’t mean it should be left out to rot. Whether or not that sea cow ever gets collected, if I ever get this museum idea off the ground, its logo is going to be a sea cow.

14 02 2010
Doug

So that’s the gist of it. I wish to create a fossil institution here on the Central Coast that not only collects fossils from the region, but from across California and the western US was well. The main focus would be mammals, but dinosaurs can come too (I personally want to search the Antlers Formation of Oklahoma, The Judith River/Two Medicine formations of Montana, and the Morrison formation). There will be a space off to the side where specimens are rotated out so that each specimen in the collections can get a little face time. Also, have the occasional open house (more than once a year) where people can go behind the scene to see how paleontology works and maybe even see specimens that are too fragile or important to be in the exhibit halls. It’s a very ambitious plan, and I seem to have the will (at first I had a pessimistic view of it but after much ass kicking I think I have it together) but not the means. I have been trying to gather information on where to gather fossils on the Central Coast but my efforts have largely been met with failure. It seems like an unrealistic goal, but the idea is always bouncing around in my head. Hell, at one point I was even eying this historic building in downtown that looks like it would be a great starting building. So I hope that quenches your curiosity.

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