Paleontologists fill in gaps in the Northwest’s fossil record on shorelines conserved by Columbia Land Trust.
It was January 1978 and low tide in the Columbia River Estuary. In the distance, the striking green of the Astoria–Megler Bridge, erected almost two decades prior, pierced the dense fog. Twenty-three-year-old amateur paleontologist, Jim Goedert, and wife, Gail, were exploring the tidal flats in Pacific County, Washington, for the first time. They were packing rock chisels, petite hammers, and old newspaper.
As the tide steadily pulled back soot and sediment, unveiling worlds encased in mudstone and siltstone, the couple spotted one particular, medium-sized rock amidst a shoreline full of similar stones. Jim took note of a fissure on the rock’s surface, and a nodule protruded from its side. With one gentle tap, the rock opened, and a time long ago revealed itself inside the concretion. Jim and Gail had found the skull and teeth of a primitive whale dating back 25 million years, to a geological epoch known as the Oligocene.
“What’s so significant about Southwest Washington is that there’s no representation of the fossil record for many species of the geological time period anywhere else in the region or in the world,” says Jim.
It’s hard to believe that much of the area along the I-5 corridor from Olympia to the Columbia River, known as the Willapa Hills, was underwater 50 to 20 million years ago. Marine creatures of this period lived at an ocean depth between 100 and 900 meters—up to nearly 3,000 feet. The sea level rose and fell, volcanoes erupted and eroded away, species went extinct while new ones evolved, and pieces of the Earth’s crust, or tectonic plates, continually smashed together pushing each other up to form mountains and great rock faces. Thick layers of rock formed from the steady accumulation of ocean sediments, and marine uplift and faulting in the subduction zone, where tectonic plates meet, shaping much of the Pacific Coast Ranges we know today. Vertebrates and invertebrates were preserved in concretions that have since eroded from landslides into the Columbia River, giving us a glimpse into the life that once existed and teaching us about a time, the climate, and species, some of which have never been seen in the flesh.
Bruce Thiel, who now works with Jim, is also an amateur paleontologist and a member of the North American Research Group. Bruce is an exceptional artist who prepares fossil specimens using small pneumatic chisels and dental tools to meticulously reveal the tiniest of details in ancient crab claws, nautiluses, isopod carapaces, and many other species found at the Pacific County site. Jim and Gail Goederts’ most notable findings from the Land Trust site include more than 100 whale specimens (such as skulls and teeth), sea lion remains, and the oldest published albatross fossil from the North Pacific Basin, Diomedavus knapptonensis—a new genus and species smaller than all existing albatrosses. Another species of albatross from the site came from younger rocks, with a remarkably well-preserved skull and beak.
“Land conservation is sometimes the first step in understanding natural history,” says Columbia Land Trust Stewardship Director Ian Sinks. “The presence of these fossils gives us such rich clarity of the distant past as well as perspective on how to best manage these lands for the future.” Columbia Land Trust conserved 452 acres at this important fossil locality in 2012, including 133 acres of shoreline, to protect intertidal wetland habitat for threatened salmon species, and to protect hillside forests for watershed processes and wildlife habitat. In addition, this conserved site along the Columbia River is now being monitored so discoveries can be preserved for future generations of researchers.
Today, the primitive whale skull Jim and Gail discovered as well as many other finds from the Pacific County site reside at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, and other museums throughout the world, from Poland to Japan. The Goedert’s generous fossil donations, along with Thiel’s preparations, have made it possible for scientists to fill in pieces of our region’s geological puzzle. When those who come after us look back on our time, the history scribed on paper won’t have the same permanence of stone or the impact of the pioneers working to protect and educate the world around us.
What is a fossil? A fossil is evidence in rock of the presence of a plant or an animal from an earlier geological period, formed when minerals in groundwater replace materials in bones and tissue, creating a replica in stone of the original organism or of their tracks.
Ethical Considerations: Public access to many of Columbia Land Trust’s conserved locations is by permission only due to sensitive species, restoration efforts, and critical wildlife habitat. If you find something you think is significant on an outdoor journey, leave it in place and contact your state’s appropriate official. For Washington contact the Washington Department of Geology, or the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. For Oregon contact Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, or the Condon Museum at the University of Oregon.