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A living lab for a fossil past

Reprinted with permission of The Oregonian

The new Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in Eastern Oregon is a showplace of time and change
Wednesday, August 10, 2005

DAYVILLE -- The panoramic view before you is horrifying: A volcano spews a massive black cloud of ash and debris across the shrub-covered landscape. The blast ejects hot bombs that trigger brush fires, while the oncoming avalanche rattles a lion-sized saber-toothed cat gorging on a small camel. Peccaries, dogs and elephants frantically flee near the South Fork of the John Day River in Eastern Oregon.

The 7 million-year-old scene is vividly illustrated in an exhibit that opens Saturday at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The exhibit, which includes huge murals and artifacts on display, will give visitors a better understanding of what fossils reveal about Oregon's ancient, ever-changing past.

The exhibit unveiling is part of the grand opening celebration of a $7.5 million museum and visitor center. Fran Mainella, director of the National Park Service, will lead the celebration at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which opened last year. Mainella said the new center will draw researchers, as well as tourists, to the fossil beds.

The exhibit's murals will take visitors on a journey through eight time periods ranging from about 5 million to 45 million years ago, when climate change and volcanic eruptions continually transformed the region's plants, animals and landscape.

The area has seen evolving landscapes, including lush tropical jungles, grassland savannas and hardwood forests, along with a changing assortment of primitive horses, rhinos, camels, saber-toothed cats, bears, elephants and other now-extinct creatures.

The center and its new exhibit, located on remote Oregon 19 about 40 miles west of John Day, is expected to become a must-see stop for the region's visitors.

The national monument -- which is in three sections spread over 14,000 acres -- attracts about 125,000 visitors annually, but that now may jump to 175,000, says monument superintendent Jim Hammett.

"This center and museum definitely will bring us a lot more recognition," Hammett said. "But what's equally important is that we're going to be able to do a much better job of interpreting very complex themes, such as extinction and how climates have changed drastically in Oregon. We're going to show what all this means and why it's important."

The fossil fields of the 10,000-square-mile John Day region are unequaled in North America for their complete sequences of plants and animals during the booming "age of mammals" after the dinosaurs died out. More than 2,100 species of plants and animals have been identified.

Ted Fremd, a National Park Service paleontologist with the monument, and his colleagues have been scrutinizing fossils to come up with realistic drawings of what the ancient animals and plants may have looked like.

Fremd said many of the animals are being illustrated for the first time. For each animal, researchers went through a process of drawing the skull, adding the muscles, then the flesh and other details. The findings went to about 30 scientists to review the work.

"We called on specialists from throughout the world to help us, even for trivial things," Fremd said. "For example, in one mural I was going to have the water looking like dark tea, but an expert in Australia told me that the chemistry of the volcanic ash in the area would have led to the water being clear and blue. So we changed it."

Paper-thin slices of petrified wood from the monument's Clarno Nut Beds area will be backlit to show the details of their structure. Some 76 species of fossil wood have been identified in the nut beds, about four times the number of species found in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

Fremd has been working with PPI Exhibit Design & Fabrication in Southeast Portland to create the exhibit, including the murals that stretch 44 feet long and 9 feet high painted by artist Roger Witter.

The mural that shows the roiling flow of volcanic gas and debris is named "The Rattlesnake" after the fossil beds' 7 million-year-old geologic strata.

"It's a hellish scene," said Dave Shipley, PPI's project manager for the exhibit. "The difficulty in the project has been creating these ancient landscapes by looking at what is there now and what the geologic record shows us. This mural will have a strange and eerie impact -- most people can't imagine this kind of thing happening in Oregon, but it did."

Shipley and his colleagues also have made a replica of Oregon's new state fossil, the Metasequoia tree, or dawn redwood. The 12-foot-high replica, made of a special epoxy resin, will have spring leaves on one side and fall leaves on the other.

Another life-size model shows a saber-toothed catlike beast called the John Day tiger, or Pogonodon. The animal is not a tiger or even part of the cat family, but an extinct beast called a nimravid that died out about 5 million years ago.

Soil research by Greg Retallack, a geology professor at the University of Oregon, will be described in the new exhibit. "Soils tell you a lot about climate in the past and what might happen in the future," Retallack said. "A lot of information is encoded in those colorful badlands."

In the center's large lobby, visitors will see scientists working on fossils behind a picture window. Displays also show how fossils are dated and how they are formed.

"This area is still very much a place of discovery," Fremd said. "I hope people get a better idea of the rich, detailed story that is preserved here. "

Richard L. Hill: 503-221-8238;

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