In the 1930s Sinclair Oil’s advertising execs and assorted flaks put their heads together to create a company logo. As the story goes, at the time the New York-based corporation’s oils and lubricants were refined from Pennsylvania crude estimated, by the corporation, to be more than 270 million years old. Since the beginning of the Age of Dinosaurs occurred an estimated 230 million years ago during the Triassic era, it’s a bit of a stretch to equate their stated age of the crude with the time when dinosaurs actually roamed the earth, but the logo was adopted nevertheless. After featuring a series of different dinosaurs Sinclair Oil settled on a green Brontosaurus. You don’t have to go far to see one today; there’s one standing on the west side of Highway 101 in downtown Fort Bragg.
Everyone knew, of course, what dinosaurs looked like back in the last century, but popular interest didn’t shoot into the stratosphere until the summer of 1993 when Steven Spielberg’s film Jurassic Park was released. Dinosaurs rose from artists’ recreations and bones in museums to your local multiplex screens in living, breathing color. The Jurassic Park film franchise continues unabated today and has so far brought in $4.4 billion worldwide. In other dino-developments California recently joined seven other states in naming an official state dinosaur. Then-Governor Jerry Brown signed the legislation making the duck-billed dinosaur Augustynolophus California’s official state dinosaur. Ten feet tall and 30 feet long, its fossilized remains were discovered in the Moreno Formation located on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, in Fresno and Merced counties. In signing the new law Brown said he hoped that having a state dinosaur would spark student interest in paleontology and the life sciences. On the less scientific side, my pre-school-aged grandson’s room is full of dinosaur books, life-like plastic dinosaurs of all sizes, dinosaur stuffed animals, and dinosaur-themed t-shirts, pajamas, socks, and hats. So why are we, young and old, so fascinated by dinosaurs?
Paleontologist Dr. Mark Goodwin, retired last year as associate director of UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology and a recent transplant to the Mendocino coast, where he and his wife Paula built a house in the area between Caspar and Fort Bragg, has a theory. He said recently from his home that part of today’s fascination with dinosaurs is that, unlike unicorns, they actually walked the earth and we can still see their descendents every time a bird flies by. “They’re both fanciful and we have a good history of their life on Earth,” he said. “For 150 million years they were all over the planet. They were one of the most successful species on Earth.” Humans, with their 200,000-year history so far, are by comparison the blink of an eye. To put it in perspective, the Cretaceous period when the dinosaurs lived spanned 79 million years, longer than all of the years following up until today.
When Goodwin moved from the East Coast to begin his work at the UC Museum of Paleontology in 1978, Berkeley was the only university in the country with a separate, stand-alone paleontology department. “If you know anything about dinosaurs you know it from a paleontologist,” he said. “Paleontology is really the gateway to science overall.” He said he was attracted to the hands-on aspect of paleontology, the exacting lab work on fossils with its microscopes, small tools, picks, and dental tools. One of his earliest assignments was to work in eastern Montana’s Hell Creek Formation, the Mother lode of dinosaur fossil sites. The Hell Creek site is as deep as 300 feet, and two million years of fossils, including those of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, have been unearthed from the deepest layers of the formation’s sandstone and mudstone. Goodwin laughed as he recalled his first encounter with Montana law enforcement back in 1978. “Son,” the officer asked him, as he pulled alongside of his truck, “What’s a State of California vehicle doing here in Montana?” Goodwin said that some important lessons from the early days of his field work were practical: bring enough water, a good pair of boots, and always know exactly where you are, with a map or GPS. “You need to identify landmarks; if you don’t know where a fossil came from it loses all its scientific value,” he said. “A fossil without contextual information is just a curio.”
The fossils of the most recognizable terrestrial dinosaurs from the Cretaceous period, which ended abruptly with the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, are generally not found intact on the Mendocino County coast due to the coast’s and the continent’s changing topographies. Goodwin emailed me a map showing that during the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, the Pacific shoreline was about 25 miles west of the current position of the Sacramento area and about 10 miles west of Redding. “There was a lot of sea life,” but its best window is in the Central Valley [where we’ve found] the fossils of marine lizards and long-necked marine reptiles,” he said, adding that there is evidence that dinosaurs ate some plants we see locally in some form today. “Needles from ancestral redwoods have been found in the stomach cavities of dinosaurs,” he said, as well as the horsetail plant, a “living fossil” whose origins go back 100-million years; both are clues to the dinosaur diet. Goodwin said that some of the coast’s oldest fossils are at the top of the bluffs, furthest removed in time from the pounding ocean waves below. He also said that dredging by fishing boats along the coast has unearthed the teeth of mammoths and fossils of other (more recent) Ice Age mammals. “Geology is a long process,” he explained. “In Montana we find dinosaur and mammoth bones together but that doesn’t mean they lived at the same time; it’s a complex picture and it takes a broad view to understand what happened.”
The hands-on work of a paleontologist in the United States is not without its political frustrations. Because property rights trump all in this country, Goodwin said that a critical aspect of his work is diplomacy─working with ranchers and other landowners to explain the importance of making fossils found on their privately owned lands available to the public so that more can be learned about our shared history of life on Earth. He said he’s more philosophical, more of a realist about moving fossils into the public trust than he used to be. “There are ranchers who will never allow us on their land, and there are ranchers who welcome us and support our efforts,” he said. He added that in many cases ranchers have also leased public lands for generations, which technically gives certified paleontologists like Goodwin the legal right to dig. But Goodwin says that a direct confrontational approach is rarely the most effective way to get more fossils into universities and museums. “My experience is that when you talk with people you can work things out,” he said. “But I don’t make the laws,” he added, “and property rights are very tightly held in the United States.” If a significant fossil is discovered on your private land across the border in Canada, for example, it doesn’t automatically belong to you; a scientist has to deem it scientifically insignificant for you to be able to legally keep it. In China all fossils belong to the government, and Goodwin warns people about buying fossils from China since by definition they were illegally procured. Then-President Obama signed a bill in 2009 that was supposed to simplify the certification process and increase penalties for illegal fossil collection, “but inspectors can’t be everywhere at once,” Goodwin said. The sheer acreage of just the public lands in the West─the national forests, national grasslands, national preserves, and waterways─is staggering: 160,864,908 acres in the US Department of Agriculture’s Western Region alone, more than half the national total. With regular budget cuts imposed by the current administration, dwindling staff and ultimately less enforcement are ongoing issues.
Putting the pieces together and challenging the prevailing wisdom of any academic discipline has always been an uphill battle. Take, for example, the abrupt demise of the non-avian terrestrial dinosaurs 66 million years ago. When father/son researchers Luis and Walter Alvarez first postulated in 1980 that those dinosaurs, along with an estimated 75 percent of all life on Earth, went extinct after a six-mile-wide asteroid slammed into the present-day Yucatán Peninsula, it took 30 years of research at 350 sites worldwide to become today’s generally accepted view of the extinction. “We all interpret the evidence in different ways,” Goodwin said. “Science functions on disagreement. The most important thing is the questions we ask.” He says it’s a challenge he poses to the grad students he still works with. “If you don’t think what I wrote is accurate, go after it,” he tells them, explaining that asking questions and questioning conclusions are together how we refine our knowledge of the evolution of life on Earth.
Retirement hasn’t spelled the end of Goodwin’s work. He’s just finished a manuscript with colleagues on fossils from Ethiopia, where fossils of giant salamanders, crocodiles, and turtles have been found. And he says he’s lucky to be able to live exactly where he wants to be. “When I got my job at Berkeley my roommates took me up to Point Reyes and the coast and I said I’m never going back,” he recalls. “I love watching the ocean and wildlife. It’s been there a long time, it’ll be there long after I’m gone, and it’s different all the time. It reinforces that you’re just a small, insignificant part of the plan.”