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Home arrow Features arrow Outdoors arrow Old bones come home

Old bones come home

Artist Heinrich Harder (1858-1935) painting of ichthyosaurs from the 1916 collector card set "Tiere der Urwelt," or "Animals of the Prehistoric World."  ().
Artist Heinrich Harder (1858-1935) painting of ichthyosaurs from the 1916 collector card set "Tiere der Urwelt," or "Animals of the Prehistoric World." ().

By JAYSON JACOBY

Oregon's oldest bones have come home to Baker County.

And soon you'll be able to go look at them.

These six chunks of Wallowa Mountain limestone, ranging in size from fist to football, entomb fossilized bone fragments from an ichthyosaur, a porpoise-size, fish-eating reptile that lived about the same period as the dinosaurs.

The ichthyosaur (pronounced "ICK-thee-o-sore" — Greek for "fish lizard") from which these bones came was not a Baker County native, however.

Paleontologists believe this particular ichthyosaur swam, and died, in a tropical sea near China about 220 million years ago.

The bones didn't make it to Baker County until quite a while later, though.

About 100 million years later.

Much more recently — in the early 1990s — one of the bones, which is part of the ichthyosaur's skull, made the round trip between paleontology labs at the University of Oregon in Eugene and Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

But now the bones, including the skull, are back, and as soon as March they will be displayed inside the Oregon Trail Regional Museum, at the corner of Campbell and Grove streets in Baker City.

"I'm thrilled to death," said Chary Mires, the museum's coordinator. "I've wanted this for years, and it's finally going to happen."

The ichthyosaur bones, which include segments of vertebrae and ribs as well as the skull, will be placed in a wood-and-glass case near the entrance to the museum's rock room, Mires said.

Although museum patrons won't be able to touch the bones, the exhibit will include a drawing of an ichthyosaur with markers that explain where, on the skeleton, each bone came from, she said.

The modern chapter of Baker County's ichthyosaur story starts in 1979.

That summer a group of geology students from the U of O were studying rocks along Eagle Creek, about 27 air miles northeast of Baker City.

The students, while rummaging through a mound of limestone rubble left by road-building machines years before, found several fossils which appeared to be vertebrae and ribs.

Dr. William Orr, a paleontology professor at the U of O, studied the fossils, which are black and so easy to distinguish against the backdrop of dull grey limestone.

Orr concluded that not only were the fragments fossilized bones, but "to my astonishment they were from an ichthyosaur."

The students' discovery surprised Orr because, in 1979, very few ichthyosaur fossils had been unearthed in Oregon — and until that point, none in the Wallowas.

But with only pieces of vertebrae and ribs to examine, Orr couldn't determine which species of ichthyosaur (there were several) the bones came from.

He suspected, though, that the Baker County bones were from a Shastasaur, a species of ichthyosaur named for the Mount Shasta region in Northern California, where specimens had been found.

If the Baker County ichthyosaur was, indeed, a Shastasaur, then the students' discovery could prove even more significant than Orr first thought.

Here's why:

Shastasaurs, so far as paleontologists can tell, never lived within a thousand miles of the place that came to be known as Baker County.

Rather, the species swam in seas near what today is mainland China.

If Orr could show that Shastasaur bones ended up several thousand miles to the east, in Northeastern Oregon, then he could help to bolster a geologic theory that's widely accepted among scientists today but which was, in the 1970s, sort of radical.

That theory, known as "plate tectonics," is based on the idea that the earth's crust is broken into chunks, which geologists call plates, and that these plates float on the earth's partially melted mantle.

Currents within the mantle gently guide the plates around the globe, the theory's proponents say, just as a flowing stream ushers along a canoe.

Some geologists latched onto the plate tectonic theory to explain how it is that rocks in Northeastern Oregon, including limestones in the Wallowas, contain fossils from mollusks and other invertebrates which are basically indistinguishable from fossils found in Asia.

What happened, these researchers theorized, is that plate tectonics floated remnants of Asian islands and tropical reefs clear across the Pacific Ocean over 100 million years or so (plate tectonics, like most geologic forces, is more tortoise than hare).

Those chunks of Asia then collided with the western coast of North America.

Orr figured that if he could confirm that a Shastasaur wound up in Baker County, he could add a vertebrate fossil to the body of evidence for plate tectonics.

But Orr needed a skull, or at least part of a skull.

Orr finally got that skull in July 1990.

Sam Jordan gave it to him.

Jordan, a 15-year-old from Grants Pass, came to Eagle Creek that summer with nine other Oregon high school students participating in a course Orr was teaching for OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland.

Jordan, who lives today in New Jersey, found the football-size, 10-pound chunk of limestone in the same pile of rubble where Orr's students had discovered the first fossils 11 years earlier.

The rock contained part of an ichthyosaur skull.

Orr studied the bone, and he concluded that it was, as he suspected, from an ichthyosaur.

But he wasn't satisfied with his own identification.

Orr called a colleague, Dr. Jack Callaway, an ichthyosaur specialist at Texas A&M.

Callaway concurred with Orr's conclusion.

Orr had his proof.

What he didn't have was a permit that entitled him to collect the fossil in the first place.

The skull fragment and the other bones were on public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Federal law requires people to obtain a permit before they gather vertebrate fossils on public property.

In a series of several letters over the next few years, the first dated Jan. 30, 1992, workers at the Forest Service office in Halfway reminded Orr that he lacked a fossil-collecting permit. The Forest Service workers even included a permit application with some of the letters.

Orr failed to fill out the paperwork, though, and in a pair of 1995 letters, the Halfway ranger asked Orr to return the ichthyosaur skull.

Orr did that in the fall of 1995.

The skull, though, stayed at the Halfway office for several years. It was moved to the Forest Service's warehouse in Baker City in 2000 or 2001.

There the fossil stayed until when, after a media request about its whereabouts, officials brought the bone to the Wallowa-Whitman headquarters, also in Baker City.

Although Orr said in 2005 that the episode "left a bad taste in my mouth," he also shipped back to Baker City five other hunks of limestone that contain ichthyosaur vertebrae and ribs.

Orr is still studying two ichthyosaur fossils collected near Eagle Creek, said Greg Visconty, the Wallowa-Whitman's mining geologist.

Mires said experts at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which is part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument near Dayville, fashioned replicas of those two fossils for the Baker City museum's exhibit.

 
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