After her grueling conference schedule in San Francisco was over (all the talks given, people met, apple juice drunk), Fossil Hunter Lottie decided to get out On The Road, and headed off to NorCal with Becky for a mini-tour of some of the most amazing ancient plants on earth.
California is probably most often associated with the glitz of Hollywood and LA, but it also sparkles with some truly astonishing landscapes, wildlife, geology, and fossils. With only two weeks (and a nearly 14-month old party-member), this road trip wasn’t epic in mileage, but we did see some fantastic stuff, including some Awfully Old Trees.
Fossil Hunter Lottie started her arboreal adventure at the Avenue of Giants, a 32 mile long drive through old-growth redwood forest. These trees are something else, and even photos can’t communicate the hugeness of their presence. While not the oldest or broadest trees in the world (both of which honours go to other California species: the Bristlecone pines and giant sequoia), these coast redwoods ARE the tallest trees on earth, and our necks certainly felt it as we craned back our heads, squinting into the glints of sun finding their way down from the canopy.
Redwoods are truly amazing organisms. There are three remaining species within their genus, two in California and one all the way over in China. The coast redwoods we visited (Sequoia sempervirens) manage to be both colossal and yet elegant; walking among the groves feels truly like you are in a natural cathedral. Yet even as you see them soaring up around you, it’s actually only when you see the fallen carcasses, somehow like beached whales, that their scale sinks in.
The coast redwoods stretch for some 500 miles from north of San Francisco up into Oregon, forming hundreds of thousands of acres of forest. Within this, a tiny amount is “pristine” old growth, meaning it includes trees that have never been logged (or at least, weren’t subject to clear-felling following European colonization of America). These survivors, while not as prehistoric as the c. 4000 year old Bristlecone pines (which are incredibly important as comparative sequences for tree-ring dating, or dendrochronology), can still be as much as two millenia in age. That covers an awful lot of human recorded history.
But redwoods are more than just ancient- they’re also living fossils, of a sort. The three redwood species are known collectively as Sequoioideae, and are the last living members of a sub-family of trees that have been growing on Earth for some 150 million years. They expanded hugely during the Cretaceous heyday of the dinosaurs, when the coast redwood species appeared, so as you wander their groves today, you really are walking among giants, both living and vanished.
Fossil Hunter Lottie paid close attention to the texture of the leaves, so she could compare her notes later to some museum specimens of these first Sequoia sempervirens. But she was also interested in their soft, fibrous bark, as she was anticipating visiting some actual fossils of these gargantuan trees later in our trip, at the famous Petrified Forest. Before that however, she spent some time examining the local geology by looking at the pebbles of the South Fork Eel River, while Becky and family had a swim (and saw a bear!).
The next stop on Lottie’s road trip was south, and lower in elevation, at the head of the famous Napa Valley. This is a Petrified Forest – one of many places around the world where ancient trees have been preserved by chance very quickly, so that all their soft parts become replaced by minerals- fossilized, in other words. This example is the petrified remains of a forest of the very same redwood species that we saw in full magnificent growth. Some of the trees are small broken sections, but others have been preserved as huge fallen trunks, now looking more than ever like columns from a vast ruined temple.
The fossil trees here are really not enormously old, just a few million years, but Fossil Hunter Lottie was amazed by the level of detail visible of their original organic structure. The texture of the bark is recognisably redwood, and in the sections cracked open anciently, you can see the rings and even the inner wood structure. Just amazing! Lottie’s hand lens got a good work out.
After this brilliant trip, seeing ancient living fossils and their petrified ancestors, Lottie was ready to come back and start her UK tour, where she’d be visiting some #realfossilhunter scientists at various museums. But just before that, while we were taking a break at a playground, she stumbled upon the partially eroded remains of a huge dinosaur, possibly a new species! It seemed to have been uncovered in the sand pit, so there must be a very promising new generation of #trowelblazers growing up in California. Lottie had a close look and although tempted, didn’t use her trowel- responsible fossil hunting is always the best way!
If you would like to share palaeontology adventures with Lottie, you will be able to buy her from the 21st May- Mary Anning’s birthday no less! Until then, follow her on her UK tour, and send us your own #realfossilhunter photos for a chance to win a Lottie figure.
Post written by Becky (@LeMoustier)