BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
The rich fossil bed near Shark Tooth Hill northeast of Bakersfield is justifiably famous among scientists and fossil hunters as a treasure trove of ancient shark teeth and other Miocene-era fossils.
But get ready, Bakersfield. Soon its fame could spread worldwide.
Bakersfield sharks (and other natural history) on TV
Shark Week's 25th anniversary starts Sunday.
"Sharkzilla": 9 p.m. Monday. The episode, which features Kern County, kicks off the channel's 25th anniversary of Shark Week. As a bonus, every night during Shark Week programming, the mechanical shark will "chomp" a different item.
National Geographic Channel
"America's Lost Treasures": 10 p.m. Aug. 22
To be announced
Film crews from Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel and the BBC have visited Bakersfield in recent months to produce a variety of programming highlighting what researchers in the journal Geology say is "among the most widespread and richest bonebeds known."
Could Bakersfield's amazing paleontology finally be getting its due?
"Bakersfield was beachfront property 15 million years ago," said Buena Vista Museum of Natural History Director Koral Hancharick. "It's time the rest of the world knows what we have here."
Maybe it was always only a matter of time before producers of Shark Week and other popular programing came here looking for evidence of giant turtles, extinct needle-nose dolphins and, of course, the greatest shark to ever swim the oceans, the massive, train car-sized megalodon.
"It's a local beast," Brooke Runnette, executive producer of Discovery Channel's Shark Week, said of the extinct species that reached up to 60 feet in length.
"You have these treasures in your own backyard," Runnette marveled. But for the most part, few are aware of them.
"What we have here in Kern County is equal to the La Brea Tar Pits (in significance)," said Rob Ernst, the son of Bob Ernst, the local fossil hunter who before his death in 2007 excavated close to 1 million fossils.
'Miocene-era crime scene'
Premiering Monday at 9 p.m., Discovery's "Sharkzilla" is expected to provide a fun and entertaining look at the giant sharks that populated this region when it was covered by an ocean bay millions of years ago. According to Runnette, the show's theme involves the discovery of a fully intact skeleton of a baleen whale on property near Shark Tooth Hill owned by Sean and Lisa Tohill. The skeleton was fully articulated, save one important exception.
"It's just missing its head," Runnette said.
That fact combined with the discovery nearby of a rare 7-inch megalodon tooth got producers thinking, "This could be a Miocene-era crime scene."
Is it possible the whale met its fate in the powerful jaws of one of the huge sharks? Was it possible for a "meg" to decapitate a whale?
That's when the show's creators really went to work, in an effort to address those questions.
Using the tooth as a starting point, producers assembled a team of engineers and paleontologists to design and build a life-size model of a megalodon -- 52 feet in length, complete with working jaws powerful enough to generate some 25,000 pounds of biting pressure.
And that's where the work ended and the fun began.
On June 11, the production team trucked the fake fish to Ventura, where they set it up on the beach. Of course the oversize "Jaws" immediately drew a crowd.
Enlisting the help of "MythBusters'" Kari Byron, Grant Imahara and Tory Belleci, the team fed a variety of items to the shark's mechanical jaws.
Apparently a beer keg, a jet ski and a sailboat were just some of the objects producers thought a living megalodon might find appetizing.
Shark Week pulls in viewers with the fun and the spectacle, but layers in lots of science, too, Runnette said.
"It's been really wonderful to be in on this show from the very beginning," Hancharick said.
Film crews spent full days at the museum in downtown Bakersfield, she said, and on the Tohill's property.
This area's rich natural history "is something that needs to have attention brought to it," said Lisa Tohill, an amateur paleontologist with a passion for the fossils and the stories they tell.
Now, after years of obscurity, attention is being paid, three times over.
"I think this should do the trick," Tohill deadpanned.
Of course, scientists have known what's in Bakersfield's backyard for decades, ever since an August afternoon in 1853 when geologist William P. Blake was exploring the dry hilly terrain in search of a potential railroad route. He later reported that "a great number of shark's teeth of different sizes were found lying loose on the surface."
Without even having to turn a shovel, the young geologist found handfuls of ancient shark teeth strewn across the hills like common stones. It was eight years before the Civil War would erupt. Yet here in this arid western frontier, Blake's discovery must have seemed impossible to some, as if he had claimed he had found the teeth of dragons.
In more recent times, researchers from UC Berkeley, the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and the University of Utah found that the Shark Tooth Hill bonebed contains an average density of 200 specimens per square meter, a mind-boggling concentration of fossils.
One of the rarer of those fossils is a 15-million-year-old dolphin skull unearthed on the Tohill property.
That skull -- and Sean and Lisa Tohill -- will be featured prominently later this month on National Geographic Channel's "America's Lost Treasures," which asks the question, "Could you have a museum-worthy artifact hidden in your house or backyard?"
Airing at 10 p.m. Aug. 22, the show will include an open call at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, where hosts Curt Doussett and Kinga Philipps will investigate the dolphin skull and other treasures, including a medal from the first U.S. World Expo, a Jack London writing tablet, an old Civil War drum and John Sutter's gold rush nuggets.
Which of the artifacts will earn the $10,000 prize? That information is top secret, said Tohill and Hancharick.
In fact, neither one even wanted to say exactly what the artifact is, out of concern that they don't compromise the show in any way.
But the item is described on National Geographic Channel's own website, so it's probably OK to mention it.
Putting Shark Tooth Hill on the map
Much less is known about the BBC feature, which may still be in production. The show's title and broadcast schedule does not appear to be available yet.
Hancharick said she received a call from London earlier this year, and film crews again visited the Chester Avenue museum.
And they also visited the Ernst Quarries, where public and private digs are scheduled throughout the year.
Rob Ernst was left with the strong impression that the show will be centered on the debate between the scientific view of evolution and the view among some biblical literalists that the Earth is only about 6,500 years old.
As far as Ernst and Hancharick are concerned, the three networks will help put the Shark Tooth Hill-area on the map.