Growing up, my favorite dinosaur was the spiky-backed stegosaurus. I found them to be so cool. It was later that I learned that their brain was about the size of a walnut. Still, I stuck by my choice when last year my then 2-year-old, Arthur, asked me what my favorite dinosaur was. Arthur is a dinosaur fan. Although he changes favorites, he is continuously fond of the mosasaurus, a giant sea lizard. Experts believe that the mosasaurus is not really a dinosaur, although it has many of the same features.
Seeing that our kids liked prehistoric creatures, we packed the van and headed north on Highway 99 to the Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County in Chowchilla. We had heard that there were actual historic fossils there. Going and seeing firsthand would allow our kids to get up close and personal with the remains of real beasts from thousands of years ago.
We arrived at our destination after a short drive.
As soon as we walked in, we were greeted by volunteers and staff. They placed us in a room and showed us a short movie which shared the history of the place we were just about to explore.
The story goes that in 1993, a landscaper working in the nearby Fairmead Landfill began to find discoloration in the soil during the dirt removal process. In fact, shortly thereafter, an eight-foot mammoth tusk was uncovered. Earth removal stopped and experts from the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California Berkeley were called in. After an analysis of the tusk, the site was determined to be a rich middle-Pleistocene fossil location. The Pleistocene time period lasted from approximately 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago. We were impressed and also learned that the area was a natural low place where water would stand and animals would gather to drink. Visions of the Serengeti in Tanzania came to mind.
After watching the video, we were immediately drawn to the almost completely intact mammoth in the center of the museum. The condition of what remained of this beast was immaculate. The kids were truly amazed. We had to explain to them that what they were looking at was not a dinosaur but something that came much later in time. Still, it was hard to believe that what we were looking at was half a million years old and found in our Valley.
Next, we migrated towards the bones of a Western camel. Never did I imagine that camels existed in our area. It turns out, California had many different species of camels. Unfortunately, the Western camel was extinct in North America 11,000 years ago. Today, the closest relative are llamas and vicunas in South America.
Looking around at the other fossils, something caught my attention. It was a large head with large teeth. I got closer and realized what I was looking at was fossils of the Mosasaurus. I quickly called my family over. Excitement filled the air when they realized it was the Mosasaurus. What are the chances of my son’s favorite “dinosaur” being found there? Judging by its teeth, we knew that this was a vicious predator.
By this time the kids wanted to dig for fossils, so we made our way to the dig area, which was artificially made and filled with sand and replica fossils. With each find, the kids got excited. My wife did a great job explaining what they were looking at.
After spending half an hour digging, we loaded the kids back up in the van and began to drive home. I was still amazed that so close to our home was a place where historic creatures gathered. On the drive I looked around to the beautiful green fields. I wondered what other stories the soil would tell us if it could talk.
That night, while laying in bed trying to sleep, I began to think about the Fairmead Landfill and this area we live in called the “Central Valley.” The fossil find was huge for this area and a true asset that will interest people from all over the world. As I closed my eyes, I began to imagine the possibilities of what else could be found here. Only time will tell.
Sevag Tateosian of Fresno is host and producer of Central Valley Ledger on 90.7 FM KFSR Fresno and CMAC Comcast 93 and Att 99. Tweet him at @sevagtateosian