Why state's oldest bone isn't on display

September 16, 2005 12:00 am
Paleontologists say the darker parts of this chunk of limestone are fossilized bones from an ichthyosaur, a fish-eating reptile. And geologists say that helps prove the peaks of the Wallowa Mountains were formed beneath an Asian sea millions of years ago. (Baker City Herald/Jayson Jacoby).
Paleontologists say the darker parts of this chunk of limestone are fossilized bones from an ichthyosaur, a fish-eating reptile. And geologists say that helps prove the peaks of the Wallowa Mountains were formed beneath an Asian sea millions of years ago. (Baker City Herald/Jayson Jacoby).


Of the Baker City Herald

Baker County's oldest bone has been around for 220 million years, but it's been famous for only 15.

It doesn't look famous.

The football-size, 10-pound chunk of grey limestone appears to be nothing more than a rock, indistinguishable from a thousand others you might step on while hiking along Eagle Creek, the Wallowa Mountain stream 27 miles northeast of Baker City where this fossil was found in 1990.

But scientists say this rock is different.

Paleontologists contend the piece of limestone encases part of the skull from a half-ton, dinosaur-like reptile that swam and gulped fish in an Asian sea.

And geologists believe the fossil helps bolster their theory that many of the Wallowa and Elkhorn peaks that loom above Baker Valley were "born" beneath the lukewarm waters of a coral-fringed tropical sea several thousand miles away.

That theory also explains the 220 million-year-old fossil's journey from Asia and its arrival in Baker County about 120 million years ago — a bit earlier than, say, Oregon Trail emigrants.

The fossil's path since its discovery in 1990 is far easier to follow, laid out in a series of letters written by the professor from the University of Oregon who first discovered and studied the fossil, and from U.S. Forest Service officials in Baker County who pointed out that the professor failed to apply for a permit to remove the fossil from the public lands.

Its future travels are not clear, although on the far shore of a sea of paperwork lies the possibility that the skull and other ichthyosaur fossils collected in the Wallowas could be gathered into a single exhibit that would travel to museums across Oregon — including the Oregon Trail Regional Museum in Baker City.

Ichthyosaur, the ‘fish lizard'

The stony star of this story once protected the brain of a creature called an ichthyosaur (pronounced "ICK-thee-o-sore").

The word is Greek for "fish lizard," and although the ichthyosaur looked like a fish, it wasn't one.

The ichthyosaur lived at the same time as the dinosaurs but it wasn't one of those, either.

Rather, scientists say, the ichthyosaur was a meat-eating, ocean-going reptile that glided through the water with grace and speed and munched fish with its dagger-like teeth.

Imagine Flipper with the attitude of an crocodile.

The case of Baker County's ichthyosaur — Dr. William Orr, a professor emeritus who retired from the University of Oregon in 1997, uses the term "saga" — dates to 1979.

That summer a group of geology students from the University of Oregon mapped rock formations along Eagle Creek.

While rifling through a pile of limestone rubble left by road-construction machines near where Paddy Creek flows into Eagle Creek, the students uncovered several fossilized vertebrae and ribs.

Orr examined the bones, which he said are black and so quite conspicuous surrounded by the grey limestone.

"To my astonishment, they were from an ichthyosaur," he said.

Very few such fossils had been found before in Oregon, and none in the Wallowas, Orr said.

Although he could not conclusively identify the specific species of ichthyosaur (there were several) from the vertebrae and ribs, to Orr's experienced eye they resembled a species known to have swum in waters off mainland China.

Not long after, he traveled to China to lecture about paleontology. While there he visited a museum whose specimens included ichthyosaur bones that seemed to Orr nearly identical to the remnants his students found at Eagle Creek.

During the summer of 1981 another group of University of Oregon students found about 20 more ichthyosaur bones at Eagle Creek. What they didn't find was a skull, which Orr said would help him identify the ichthyosaur species, and possibly support his theory that the Eagle Creek ichthyosaur (or ichthyosaurs) never actually lived in the Wallowas but were born and died thousands of miles to the west.

Nine summers later, in 1990, Orr took a job with OMSI — the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. Charged with shepherding 10 high school students around the state for six weeks, Orr drove the group to Eagle Creek.

Orr's students, though he admits they exercised his patience on occasion, delivered the skull.

On July 15, 1990, Sam Jordan, a 15-year-old from Grants Pass, discovered part of an ichthyosaur skull in the same limestone pile where the university students found the vertebrae and ribs, Orr said.

After examining the skull, Orr concluded that it was indeed an Asian species — a "Shastasaur," a type of ichthyosaur named for the Mount Shasta region of Northern California where specimens of that species had been found.

Orr said Dr. Jack Callaway, an ichthyosaur expert from Texas A&M University whom he asked to study the piece of skull, confirmed that it was indeed from a Shastasaur.

That confirmation was significant, Orr said, because it supported what was in 1990 still a rather newfangled, though by then widely accepted, notion among geologists: That many of the mountains in modern Oregon, including sections of the Wallowa and Elkhorn mountains near Baker City, as well as the Klamath Mountains in the state's southwest corner, are built of rocks that originated in the South Pacific as islands and coral reefs.

"Kind of important," he said.

These chunks of rock, the theory goes, migrated thousands of miles to the east over tens of millions of years, then crashed into the western edge of North America — which, as though to make this continental collision inevitable, was simultaneously sliding to the west.

The driving force, as it were, behind this theory is called "plate tectonics."

Geologists believe the earth's crust is broken into more than a dozen chunks, sort of like one of those puzzles with big pieces designed for a toddler's clumsy fingers.

The earth's mantle, on which the crust floats, is so hot (more than 1,000 degrees Celsius) that its consistency more resembles warm taffy than cold granite. Currents within this soupy section of the mantle, geologists say, gently push the crustal plates, much as eddies in a river guide a raft or canoe.

The movement, as with most geologic processes, seems so sluggish in human terms as to be imperceptible — say 5 centimeters per year. You might as well try to watch your fingernails grow.

But like compound interest, plate tectonics adds up: 5 centimeters per year equals 50 kilometers per million years. And with fossils such as the ichthyosaur skull dating to 220 million years . . . well, that's a lot of travel time.

Orr said geologists believe those remnants of South Pacific islands and reefs latched onto North America about 120 million years ago.

As evidence to support this hypothesis, geologists offer fossils. Fossils from mollusks and other invertebrates found in the Wallowa limestone, for example, are essentially indistinguishable from specimens unearthed in Asia.

Orr said the confirmation that the ichthyosaur skull piece from Eagle Creek came from an Asian Shastasaur further solidified the theory by adding a vertebrate fossil to the body of evidence.

Scientists study the fossil

In 1990 Orr hauled the ichthyosaur skull back to Eugene, where he oversaw (and still oversees, though he's retired from teaching) the Thomas Condon State Museum of Fossils.

Condon, who died in 1907, was one of Oregon's pioneering geologists and a former professor at the University of Oregon. Condon was among the earliest scientists to recognize the scientific value of the vast fossil beds near the John Day River, now the site of a national monument.

(The town of Condon, county seat of Gilliam County in North-Central Oregon and not far from the fossil beds, was not named for Thomas Condon, however, but for his nephew, Harvey C. Condon.)

Although Jordan's discovery of the ichthyosaur skull was reported in several newspapers in the summer of 1990, including the Baker City Herald and the Hells Canyon Journal, Wallowa-Whitman officials didn't write to Orr for more than a year.

On Jan. 30, 1992, Kevin Martin, the acting ranger at the Pine District, wrote to Orr about the fossil. Forest Service officials learned about the discovery through the media, according to Martin's letter.

"I would like to congratulate you on your find," Martin wrote.

He noted, however, that Orr did not apply for a permit to collect vertebrate fossils on public land.

Martin included with his letter an application for a permit. He also wrote that the Forest Service would need to approve a "memorandum of understanding" with Orr that outlined where, and how, the fossil would be stored and displayed.

In October 1992 Orr wrote to the Pine District. Callaway, Orr wrote, was studying the skull in Texas.

"The fossil is traveling as much now as it did after death and burial," Orr wrote.

On April 23, 1993, Ranger Orlando Gonzales wrote to Orr, reminding the professor that the Forest Service was still waiting for him to fill out the agency's paperwork.

Gonzales also wrote: "We continue to prefer Condon Museum (in Eugene) as the curatorial facility for the ichthyosaur fossils and will be working at preparing the necessary paperwork."

On May 10, 1993, Myles Brand, then the president of the University of Oregon, wrote in a letter to Gonzales that Orr was still studying the skull.

Over the next year and a half, Orr did not mail back the permit application, and apparently the Forest Service did not process the paperwork that Gonzales mentioned in his April 1993 letter.

The Forest Service became more aggressive in 1995.

Gonzales, in a letter dated Feb. 10, 1995, asked Orr to return the skull to the Pine District. Gonzales, who moved from Baker County not long after, repeated the request in a letter written July 12, 1995.

"(Orr) wouldn't apply for a permit, so the Forest Service eventually just asked him to send (the skull) back," explained Greg Visconty, the Wallowa-Whitman's mining geologist.

What the agency didn't do, but should have done, Visconty contends, is ask Orr to return all the ichthyosaur fossils he and his students collected, not just the skull piece that was referred to in the letters Orr and Forest Service officials exchanged.

"They are federal property, and our policy is that they remain federal property," Visconty said. "It would be best if we had all the specimens at one place."

Orr acknowledges that he never obtained a permit to collect ichthyosaur fossils on the Pine District.

He said he didn't think one was necessary because his students didn't dig up the fossils, but merely plucked them from a pile of rocks.

But Visconty said the manner in which Orr and his students collected the ichthyosaur fossils is irrelevant.

According to federal law, you need a permit to "collect" vertebrate fossils on national forests; and the law makes no distinction between fossils that are buried and ones that lie on the surface.

(That law does not require a permit to collect plant or invertebrate fossils, although it's illegal to sell such fossils.)

Orr said the other Baker County ichthyosaur fossils, the ribs and vertebrae, are still in Eugene.

He said that although he did mail the ichthyosaur skull piece to the Pine District back in 1995, he was "annoyed" by the Forest Service's repeated requests.

"It was just one of those unfortunate things," Orr said. "The whole thing kind of left a bad taste in my mouth."

It was sort of bitter for the Forest Service, too, based on letters that agency employees exchanged several years ago.

On Oct. 19, 1999, for example, Visconty wrote about Orr: "Some lesson he's teaching these kids — theft of (government) property is OK."

On Jan. 4, 2000, Barbara Beasley, a Forest Service paleontologist in Nebraska, wrote to Visconty, regarding Orr's fossil collecting: "I become very frustrated dealing with professional paleontologists who refuse to cooperate with land management agencies. To me it's obvious that Dr. Orr does not entertain the notion to work with the Forest Service regarding paleontological resources and a much stronger action by the (Forest Service) should take place."

Visconty said he's confident that the Forest Service would have given Orr a permit to collect ichthyosaur fossils along Eagle Creek.

"Orr's credentials were never in question," Visconty said. "It should not have been a big issue."

Orr sums up the situation this way:

"Don't let anybody tell you paleontologists don't live interesting lives," he said. "It took my research on an interesting side trip."

Fossil has been in storage

Since Orr mailed the fossil back to Baker County in 1995, however, it hasn't gotten out much.

Visconty said the hunk of limestone was at the Pine District office when he started working there in 1999.

He said the fossil has been stored at the Wallowa-Whitman's warehouse on 11th Street in Baker City since 2000 or 2001.

Visconty, who now works at the forest headquarters in Baker City, brought the fossil there earlier this month after a media request about the rock's whereabouts.

Right now neither Orr nor Wallowa-Whitman officials can say with certainty where the fossil will go next.

But they agree that its journey should not, and will not, end on this nondescript, government-issue table, where the fossil is neither available for scientists to study, nor on display for the public to ponder.

"It should be enshrined somewhere and preserved," Orr said.

Chary Mires of Baker City agrees.

Mires is the coordinator at the Oregon Trail Regional Museum in Baker City.

"I would just absolutely love to have (the skull)," Mires said. "We'd take care of it."

But achieving that goal will require some paperwork.

"We need to have a curation approval process," Visconty said.

What that means, basically, is that a Forest Service paleontologist will pick a permanent home for the skull — and possibly for the approximately 25 other ichthyosaur bones that Orr and his students found at Eagle Creek during the 1970s and early 1980s.

This probably won't happen soon, however, because the Forest Service is not by any definition rich in paleontologists. The agency employs five of them, nationwide, Visconty said.

Once the curation paperwork is complete, then the Forest Service could negotiate a separate deal by which the ichthyosaur fossils could be gathered into a single exhibit that would travel to museums across Oregon, Visconty said.

Including, to Mires' delight, the Oregon Trail Regional Museum.