Paleo Lab Treasure: Thalattosaur

While Dinosaurs Unearthed is on exhibit this summer, you can find real dinosaurs and other prehistoric animal fossils and bones in OMSI's Paleontology Lab. 

When Greg Carr started volunteering at OMSI in December 2012, he was part of a package deal. Greg followed his once-in-a-lifetime fossil discovery “Bernie” to the Paleontology Lab. What makes this jumbled collection of bones so special? These are the oldest bones ever found in Oregon.

An avid rockhound since his childhood, Greg didn’t begin actively hunting for fossils until about 8 years ago, but it quickly became a passion. In fact, like most volunteer fossil preparers in the lab, Greg has never actually taken a class on paleontology but self-taught using textbooks. The Paleo Lab is home to retired and current engineers, accountants, teachers, and medical professionals.

Greg Carr working on his fossil, Bernie 

How did Greg find Bernie? In the summer of 2011, Greg’s daughter Gloria needed a field trip component for a geology class. The two headed out to a site about 80 miles east of Prineville, near the small town of Paulina. They stopped at a road cut in Crook County, a place where Greg had found ammonites the previous year.

“We parked on the shoulder and walked across to the slope. Almost immediately, I picked up a nautiloid fossil, and Gloria picked up something else. “It’s round, but it’s not an ammonite. What is it, dad?” I looked at it closely, and recognized it as bone. “It’s bone, bone!” we both got excited as bone is very rare, much more rare than ammonites or other shells. Working uphill, we found the main concretion containing bone fragments on the surface of the rock, and we knew we had found the source.”

Some early bones that were excavated
Some of the early humerus bones that were taken off the concretion containing Bernie.

Because fossils belong to person who owns the land they’re on, and not the person who discovers them, Greg reached out to Gene and Miriam Bernard. The ranchers gave their permission to have the fossil excavated and agreed to donate it to the University of Oregon’s Condon Collection. A few weeks before excavation was set to begin, Gene Bernard was killed in a tragic traffic accident. The specimen was named “Bernie” in his honor.

Before Bernie could be taken to the University of Oregon, it needed to be prepared in a lab. It was decided that the OMSI would be the perfect place, allowing close to a million visitors to see the work being done each day and ask questions. After close to a year of excavation, Greg, in consultation with experts at the 7th Annual Fossil Preparation Symposium, determined that the skull was not that of an Ichthyosaur as originally thought. It was a Thalattosaur.

Thalattosaur skull 
The Skull, recently revealed, sits upside down on Greg's prep table. 

The Thalattosaur (sea lizard) lived during the Triassic, at the same time dinosaurs were just beginning to appear on land, but much earlier than most dinosaurs we know well today. These aquatic reptiles filled an evolutionary niche similar to that of Sea Lions today. Thalattosaur specimens have been discovered all along the western coast of North America and as far away as Switzerland and China.

230 million years ago during the Triassic, Oregon was almost completely under water with many small islands dotting the area. This is how fossils of Ichthyosaurs and Thalattosaurs came to be found today in Eastern Oregon, in marine sedentary deposits. The supercontinent Pangea existed through the mid-Triassic, and Thalattosaurs roamed the oceans on all sides.

Greg holding the Thalattosaur skull 
Greg uses a tennis ball to demonstrate where Bernie's eye would have fit in the socket. 

The Izee/Suplee inlier (the area of marine/sedentary rocks where the Carrs discovered Bernie) was extensively surveyed in the 1950s, and the road cut they visited contained deposits dated to 230 million years. Radio carbon dating only works on specimens less than 60 million years old. So this is how Bernie’s age was determined.

It will take close to 15 years to prep the entire block of rock and bones that was excavated in 2012 and Greg is hoping to work on as much of it as possible. It’s slow going, as fossil preparers must have meticulous precision so as to not destroy bones as they work to separate from rock.

Comparison of modern nautilus and Triassic nautloid
Greg compares one of the intact nautiloids that he excavated from the Bernie find with a modern nautilus shell.

You can find Greg volunteering in the Paleo Lab every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. You can learn more about Greg's journey with Bernie on his personal blog: Bernie the Ichthyosaur

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