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Friday, Oct 22 2010 06:22 PM

Bone buffs dig chance to explore Shark Tooth Hill

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Tom Klein holds up a whale tooth he excavated from the earth Friday at Shark Tooth Hill.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    George Khachatryan of Austin, Texas, sifts through the soil Friday at Shark Tooth Hill to see what types of fossils he could find.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Tom Klein of Lake Isabella has fun digging in the dirt Friday at Shark Tooth Hill. The Buena Vista Museum of Natural History has made special arrangements to hold a dig here Friday through Sunday to allow bone buffs and other private individuals the chance to be a paleontologist for a day.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    More than 50 participated in the Shark Tooth Hill fossil dig Friday where the ultra-rich fossil bed that boasts 15 million-year-old shark teeth, whale bones and even whole skeletons of prehistoric sea creatures once swam the waters of the ancient Temblor Sea on the outskirts of Bakersfield.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Many from all over California and several other states dig in the dirt Friday at Shark Tooth Hill in search of fossils dating back millions of years.

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BY STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

It was the summer of 1853 when geologist William P. Blake found several ancient shark teeth strewn like common stones atop a dry hill not far from present-day Bakersfield.

Since that stunning discovery, a paleontological treasure trove of fossils -- including the skeletons of whales, sea turtles and long-extinct sea lions -- has been unearthed from the area that has come to be known as Shark Tooth Hill.

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How to become a paleontologist for a day

As of Friday afternoon, there were still spaces available for the Sunday dig at the Shark Tooth Hill bone bed.

All participants must be museum members, but it's easy to join at $25 for individuals, $20 for seniors and $75 for families.

Cost of participating in the Sunday dig is $75 per person. All fossil hunters will be allowed to keep the fossils they find, with the exception of scientifically significant fossils, which will remain the property of the land owners. Children must be 12 years of age or older and accompanied by a parent or family member.

To reserve a spot at Sunday's dig, call or leave a message at the museum at 324-6350

On Friday, and continuing Saturday and Sunday, the 15-million-year-old bone bed has been opened to rock hounds and amateur paleontologists for the first time in more than three years.

Organized by the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History, with the cooperation of landowner Mary Ernst, the three-day event opens up a time machine in the earth, allowing the public to experience the awe and wonder that Blake must have felt 157 years ago when he stumbled upon the gargantuan geological discovery.

"This takes me back to when I was 10 and I came out here looking for sharks' teeth," said Tom Klein, 57, of Lake Isabella. "But today I found something even more exciting."

Klein showed off a long narrow tooth, probably from a sperm whale, and a chunk of vertebra from a large sea mammal.

More than 50 others joined him Friday at the dig in the West Quarry, a location few members of the public have visited, and a site the late bone hunter Bob Ernst called his "Glory Quarry."

Proceeds from the weekend fundraiser will be used to support the Chester Avenue museum, including its plan to buy back several fossils that were exhibited there for years. Mrs. Ernst, who is now in possession of the whale skeletons and other pieces, plans to sell the collection at auction later this year.

The museum needs to raise an estimated $150,000 or more through fundraising efforts and donations in order to bring the signature pieces of the collection back to Bakersfield.

"I've always wanted to dig here. I just never made it," said John O'Keefe, who with his wife, Ina, came from Northern California to sift through the Round Mountain silt for evidence of the Temblor Sea, which once covered present-day Bakersfield.

Others came from as far away as Virginia and Michigan for the chance to explore the ancient hunting grounds of megalodon, the Greyhound bus-sized sharks that bit the tails off of whales, crippling them before cutting them to pieces with their fearsome rows of 4-inch-long teeth.

Shark Tooth Hill's ultra-rich fossil bed boasts one of the most concentrated fossil deposits in the world, scientists have learned. And Mark Feinman of Upland, Calif., discovered just how rich as he carefully worked the quarry Friday.

"I'm not sure this is a bone or not, but it's got a tooth embedded in it," Feinman said as he examined the bowling ball-size stone.

What he found appeared to be what paleontologists call a concretion, sedimentary rock that has solidified, said Gregg Wilkerson, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management geologist who helped out at Friday's dig.

Wilkerson pointed out that the concretion had hardened around a long rounded bone that ran the length of the rock.

"I was thinking this was a rib bone, but it's too big and rounded," Wilkerson said. "It's probably a femur. It's a pretty good educational piece."

Across the cut in the hillside they worked, some wearing dust masks to protect against valley fever spores. They scraped the ground gently and many sifted the dry soil through metal screens, watching closely for a tooth here, a bone fragment there.

To witness their passion and meticulous efforts, one might have wondered if they were searching for gold.

And in the minds of these enthusiasts, they were.

"When Bob was alive, we'd do one in the spring and one in the fall," Mrs. Ernst said of the digs, which have not been active since Bob Ernst died in 2007.

"We're planning to do more," she said.

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