Feature Article - May 2007
by Do-While Jones

Sharktooth Hill

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes 1

Sometimes, itís not what you see in the museums, but what you donít see that should draw your attention.

There is a nice little museum in Bakersfield, California, called the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History. 2 One of their patrons owns some land northeast of Bakersfield which contains rich fossil beds. This area is called ďSharktooth HillĒ for a reason you might easily guess. Occasionally this patron allows museum members to dig on his land as a fundraiser for the museum. (It costs $25 to become a member, and then $50 per day to dig on selected weekends. 3) I took the opportunity to do this on April 25, 2005, and encourage you to do so, too, if the opportunity ever arises.

The area northeast of Bakersfield consists of rolling hills whose tops are roughly equal in height.

The museum officials use a bulldozer to clear off the dirt above the bonebed a few days before the dig days, allowing museum members dig the rest of the way down to the fossils.

In just four hours of digging I found lots of shark teeth and a few other kinds of teeth.

I was told that the pencil-shaped teeth came from a porpoise or dolphin. The teeth below came from some kind of ray (sting ray, manta ray, etc.).

I didnít find any shark bones because sharks donít have bones. Shark skeletons are made of cartilage, which is the stuff that makes your nose stiff. Cartilage doesnít fossilize well. Thatís why hominid skulls all have a hole where the nose should be. Artists have to guess what hominid noses looked like, and they guess they looked partly human, partly apelike, because of their evolutionary prejudice. But thatís another story.

Whales do have bones, and I found a dozen or so broken pieces of whale ribs. Just a few of them are shown below.

The most significant thing I found was identified as the ear bone of a whale; but it wasnít important enough that the museum wanted to keep it. It remains in my collection.

I discovered that the best way to find the fossils was to take big chunks of sediment back home. At home I put the chunks in a plastic tub of water, where they immediately turned to mud. I put the mud in a kitchen sieve and washed the mud away, leaving the teeth and a little bit of gravel in the sieve. Many of the shark teeth I found were less than ľ inch (6 mm).

Inside the Museum

The museum contains many fossils found at Sharktooth Hill, and other places. They tell you,

Twelve to fifteen million years ago during the time period geologists call the Miocene Epoch most of Kern County was an ocean bay. The waters lapped against rolling hills that were soon to be pushed up to form the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Northeast of Bakersfield, where the modern Kern River leaves the Sierra Nevadas, a river flowed into the bay.

The river carried sediments and the remains of plants and animals into the bay. These materials, along with the plentiful remains of marine organisms, sank to the bottom and much of the organic remains was fossilized. Subsequent geologic events pushed up the sediments, and they then eroded to form the rolling hills that include Sharktooth Hill. Exposed in these hills is the bone bed that formed from those fossil-rich sediments. The Sharktooth Hill bonebed encompasses more than 110 square miles, but most of it is deep underground. Only east of the Bakersfield area is it exposed. 4

You would probably believe that, if you didnít actually go on the dig and see the Sharktooth Hill bonebed. You might even believe it if you did go on the dig and left your brain in neutral. We hope you are more skeptical and less gullible than most people apparently are.

Kern County Bay

Why do they think Kern County was once ďan ocean bay?Ē We suppose it is because there are lots of shark teeth found there. Sharks generally live in oceans. When was the last time you heard about anyone bitten by a shark in a desert, forest, or prairie? If sharks were there, it must have been covered with water.

But they have also found fossils from 138 species of vertebrate animals including birds, cats, dogs, horses, camels, and deer mixed in with all those shark teeth. 5 How did all those animals get out in the ocean? They claim, ďThe river carried sediments and the remains of plants and animals into the bay.Ē

The Missing Evidence

The key, as we have hinted at the beginning of this essay, is what ISNíT in the museum. They donít have a wonderful shell collection. Shouldnít the bottom of an ocean bay be littered with seashells? Why donít they have a wonderful display of all the different kind of shells that lived around Bakersfield 12 to 15 million years ago?

It could be that they have lots of shells, but donít display them in the museum and donít mention them on the web page because they arenít important. But wouldnít it be important to see how much, or how little, shells have evolved in 12 to 15 million years? If you got Ďem, flaunt Ďem.

I suspect they donít display Kern County shells because they donít have very many. Maybe they donít have any at all. When I dug there, I didnít find a single shell. I didnít even find a piece of a broken shell. But I did find tiny shark teeth that were so small they were difficult to pick up without tweezers. If there were any shells, or shell fragments, I think I would have noticed them. And I found the teeth and bones in dried mud, not sand. Sharktooth Hill just doesnít look like what I would expect the bottom of a shallow bay to look like.

The geological setting is more consistent with some sort of terrible storm, or maybe a tremendous flood, that covered the Bakersfield area with a lot of water and mud, leaving beached whales and sharks alongside dead birds and land animals. The area seems to have been covered by dirt that washed down from the nearby mountains in the subsequent decades. Eventually rain eroded the dirt into the rolling hills we see today.

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1 Arthur Conan Doyle, Silver Blaze. In: The Penguin complete Sherlock Holmes. London: Penguin, 1981.
2 2018 Chester Ave., Bakersfield, CA 93301. http://www.sharktoothhill.com/index.html
3 http://www.sharktoothhill.com/sharktooth_hill_dig.html
4 http://www.sharktoothhill.com/sharktooth.html
5 http://www.sharktoothhill.com/sharktooth_hill_fauna.doc