Fossil Plants, Insects, and Frogs in the Vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada

Not far from the Comstock Lode, a bonanza of fossils awaits

Contents for: Virginia City-Vicinity Fossils:

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Field Trip To The Paleontological Bonanza

When visiting Virginia City, western Nevada--the "Queen of the Comstock"--take a special look around you at the glorious Basin and Range scenery. It seems to sweep forever to the east, beyond the horizon, in the heart of a great pinyon pine-juniper woodland. The dominant shrub here is Basin sage, with such regular subordinate associates as rabbitbrush, desert peach, bitterbrush, and hairy horsebrush.

Now try to imagine what this land would have looked like some 12 to 13 million years ago: The pinyon pine-juniper-sagebrush botanic component is gone, no mountains, only hilly topography. In place of thirsty dry washes, many crystalline lakes and sluggish streams lie scattered eastward in the distance. To the immediate west, the central to southern sector of the ancestral Sierra Nevada is but a relatively low ridge approximately 3,000 feet high and gives no apparent indication that its summits will continue to rise, on average, many thousands of feet with the passing of geologic time (the northern Sierra Nevada has of course stood at roughly its present-day height since around 50 to 40 million years ago). All around you, enveloping you, is a dense mixed conifer forest of Douglas-fir, western white pine, ponderosa pine, white fir, and magnificent giant sequoia. The overall scene, in fact, is strikingly similar to the modern-day moist western slopes of the Sierra Nevada in the vicinity of Calaveras Big Trees State Park, some 23 miles northeast of Angels Camp, California--an area that supports an inspiring giant sequoia forest community.

If such a vastly different character of the land seems downright shocking---patently unbelievable in the main--the verifiable proof its existence in the geologic past can be examined only a moderate distance from the exciting Old West atmosphere of Virginia City in western Nevada, where the internationally renowned Comstock Lode yielded incalculable fortunes in silver and gold, mainly from 1859 to the 1880s (when miners discovered at least six individual, major bonanza bodies), with sporadic rich mineralization encountered underground through the 1920s. Within a reasonable driving distance of the famed silver mining camp lies a regional badlands district where paleontologically productive exposures of sedimentary rock yield the remains of numerous species of fossil plants, insects, and even frogs--all dating from the late middle Miocene, some 12.7 million years old.

This Virginia City-vicinity fossil site is an especially rich one. In addition to the remains of insects, occasional frog skeletons, and prolific microscopic diatoms, some 30 additional species of macrofossil plants have also been identified from the Virginia City/Comstock Lode area, including giant sequoia and such dicotyledonous deciduous varieties as willow, birch, alder and cottonwood, for example. Most of the fossil beds occur in an often economically lucrative sedimentary material called diatomite, a rock type composed almost entirely of diatoms, a microscopic photosynthesizing single-celled algae that periodically proliferated in ancestral west to central Nevada during middle to late Miocene times, contributing myriads of their intricately designed frustules to the accumulating geologic record. Indeed, in the early 1900s, a commercial mining operation extracted high grade diatomite from the vicinity of the fossil locality near Virginia City, and shipped the processed product to New York for use in the manufacture of a silver polish; and that leads to the rather curious consideration that perhaps numerous individuals, in possession of silver ornaments and utensils created from Comtock Lode mineral extraction, might have polished their valuable metallic objects with a product originally mined near Virginia City, as well.

In addition to its value as an abrasive in polishes, diatomite also finds use in several other commercial applications, including: filters (in swimming pools, for exzample; also helps clarify beer and wine); insulation material; as a whitener in paints; toothpaste; as an absorbent for pet litter and industrial spills; a silica additive to cement and numerous other compounds; and a well-known natural insecticide (AKA, Diatomaceous Earth).

Geologist Vincent P. Gianella discovered the Virginia City-vicinity fossil flora in 1935 during his detailed investigation of the Comstock Lode in the neighboring Silver City region (a small community situated approximately four miles south of Virginia City). For a preliminary estimate of its geologic age, Gianella turned his collection over to then noted paleobotanist Ralph Chaney, who determined that the ancient botanic specimens were most likely of early Pliocene age--a rather raw initial relative geologic age evaluation that eventually proved inaccurate, but it was a close paleobotanical call due to a few exotic old-world deciduous plant species in the Comstock Lode-area flora. More recent, definitive, radiometric age-dating techniques (radioactive isotope analyses) on volcanic constituents within the local stratigraphic section constrain the flora to around 12.7 million years old--or late middle Miocene in geologic age.

For a more detailed analysis of the fossil flora, Chaney gave the specimens to a colleague, Mary S. Leitch, who concluded rather incisively that in order to accomplish the task much more fossil material needed to be collected; unable to undertake the necessary collecting expedition, Chaney and Leitch eventually directed 29 year-old paleobotanist Daniel I. Axelrod to head out into the field. In 1939, Axelrod spent several days gathering additional fossil plants at the Comstock Lode/Virginia City locality.

Axelrod's larger fossil sampling so altered the overall paleobotanical aspect of the collection originally studied that a whole new approach to its scientific interpretation was now in order. When Dr. Leitch informed Dr. Chaney that she could not complete the project due to a conflict in professional priorities, Axelrod happily took over the study, and over the next numerous years, interspersed among other scientific research projects, cumulatively amassed decades in assiduous elucubrations before eventually publishing a superior paleobotanical monograph on the Virginia City-vicinity fossil plant locality.

In preparation for his technical paleobotanical treatise, Axelrod employed especially efficient excavating expertise in the field to secure some 3,639 fossil plant specimens from the Comstock Lode/Virginia City flora. He then determined through methodical statistical analyses that the most common plants encountered were leaves belonging to (1) Populus eotremuloides, the Miocene analog of the living Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa)--followed by, in decreasing order of relative abundance: (2) Betula thor (leaves)--Paper birch, Betula papyrifera; (3) Salix knowltoni (leaves), Lemmon's willow--Salix lemmonii; (4) Populus washoensis (leaves), Bigtooth aspen--Populus grandidentata; (5) Chamaecyparis linguaefolia (leafy twigs and cones)--Lawson cypress, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana; (6) Amelanchier alvordensis (leaves)--western serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia; (7) Sequoiadendron chaneyi (leafy twigs)--Giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum; (8) Pinus wheeleri (fascicles and seeds)--Western white pine Pinus monticola; (9) Abies concoloroides (cone scales, (needles, seeds and leafy twigs)--white fir, Abies concolor; (10) Populus pliotremuloides (leaves)--quaking aspen, Populus tremuloides; (11) Salix owyheeana (leaves)--coastal willow, Salix hookeriana; (12) Ceanothus chaneyi (leaves)--Deer brush, Ceanothus integerrimus; (13) Ceanothus leitchii (leaves)--Tobacco brush, Ceanothus velutinus; (14) Rhododendron gianellana (leaves)--Western azalea, Rhododendron occidentale; (15) Ribes stanfordianum (leaves)--Flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum; (16) Pseudotsuga sonomensis (leafy twigs, needles and seeds)--Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii; (17) Pinus florissanti (cones and needles)--Ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa; (18) Alnus smithiana (cones)--Mountain alder, Alnus tenufolia; (19) Castanopsis sonomensis (leaves)--Golden chinquapin, Castanopsis chrysophylla; (20) Salix laevigatoides (leaves)--Red willow, Salix laevigata; (21) Carya bendirei (leaves)--Shagbark hickory, Carya ovata; (22) Quercus simulata (leaves)--Chinese evergreen oak, Quercus myrsinaefolia; (23) Mahonia reticulata (leaves)--Cascades oregon grape, Mahonia nervosa; (24) Holodiscus idahoensis (leaves)--oceanspray, Holodiscus microphyllus; (25) Prunus moragensis (leaves)--Bitter cherry, Prunus emarginata; (26) Rhamnus precalifornica (leaves)--California coffeeberry, Rhamnus californica; (27) Arbutus matthesii (leaves)--Pacific madrone, Arbutus menziesii; (28) Cupressus sp. (leafy twigs)--a second species of cypress; (29) Tusga mertensiana (seeds)--mountain hemlock; and (30) Pinus balfouroides (cones)--Foxtail pine, Pinus balfouriana.

The fossil plant, insect, and amphibian (AKA, frog) material is found exclusively in the sedimentary strata of a geologic rock deposit called the Coal Valley Formation, dated at late middle Miocene on the geologic time scale, approximately 12.7 million years old. Axelrod, for example, collected all of his paleobotanic specimens from Member 3 of the Coal Valley Formation, some 330 feet of pure white to creamy white well bedded diatomite, often laminated, with occasional layers of yellow to brown andestic tuffs and breccias roughly six inches to four feet thick.

Once at the specific site within a reasonable driving distance of Virginia City and the fabulous Comstock Lode, hike into the hills, looking especially for the brilliant white stratified rocks--the diatomites (composed of diatoms, a microscopic photosynthesizing single-celled algae) and associated fine-grained siliceous shales which regionally underlie the diatom-rich deposits.

Axelrod's original primary fossil plant locality occurs in a prominent exposure of diatomite roughly 15 feet thick and about 30 feet long--obviously not an overly extensive area of fossiliferous sediments, yet infrequent to moderately common remains of deciduous and evergreen leaves occur here, in addition to gymnospermous conifer seeds, leafy twigs, needles, fascicles, cones, and cone scales. Use a geology pick/rock hammer to whack out--read: carefully remove--the potential leaf-yielding rocks. Should no evidence of a fossil appear on the exposed surface, gently rap the diatomites along their bedding planes with the blunt end of that same standard geology hammer. This procedure will provide a greater opportunity to locate something extraordinary; and please note, by way of a recommendation based on personal experience--disabuse oneself entirely of utilizing one of those wide blade roofer-type hammers, typically advocated by any number of paleobonists for all plant-bearing sedimentary rocks. Maybe such a roofer's "weapon" works well with classically soft fissile shales, but the implement lacks punch, heft, the necessary compact mass to efficiently cleave diatomites with a single sure strike, a method that improves exponentially the probability of discovering excellent paleontobotanical specimens.

Sometimes the fossil leaves remain difficult to spot due to the sun's glare on the bleached bone-white diatomite, so try getting into the shade of a nearby juniper or pinyon pine for a more comfortable examination of the specimens. The 12.7 million year-old leaf impressions typically appear in shades of reddish orange to pale brown. And while deciduous and evergreen leaves might at first blush appear most conspicuously represented, watch carefully for conifer seeds, needles, fascicles, leafy twigs, cones and cone scales--other botanic specimens commonly observed here.

Approximately two-tenths of a mile northeast of the main fossil locality first investigated by Daniel I. Axelrod lies an abandoned open pit diatomite mine. Excellent representative samples of high grade, quality diatomite can be collected here. The most common diatom specimens from the Virginia City-vicinity locality consist of Actincyclus cedrus and Melosira granulata; under powers of moderate magnification (through the implementation of microscopy), the diatom species fascinatingly resemble miniature discs and boxcars linked together in short chains, respectively. Paleoecologically speaking, a prevalence of Actinocyclus cedrus and Melosira granulata diatoms from the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation here signifies that the lacustrine hydrologic system within which they propagated probably displayed the following characteristics: moderate eutrophy; a relatively shallow depth; warm monomictic, with regularly cyclic circulatory mixing during winter; slight alkalinity, with a pH level that would have registered close to 8.0; a high silica content; and winter temperatures that never dropped below 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Geochemical conditions required to stimulate a proliferation of diatoms necessary to produce economically valuable deposits of diatomite include: significant concentrations of silica, usually supplied by volcanic activity; a pH that generally ranges from 6 to 8; high potassium and magnesium content, in relative relatonship to low ratios of sodium and calcium; loads of the element boron; and high proportions of phosphate and nitrate, generally provided by upwelling waters in the lacustrine system.

While at the diatomite mine, examine the strata exposed there for additional fossil leaves, needles, seeds and twigs--plus, rare excellently preserved frog skeletons. Although not as plentiful here, the macro-paleobotanical remains are sometimes present within several layers of the less-pure, lower-grade diatomites, the sediments with an off-white to brownish tone. The specific species of fossil frog found in the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation is called Rana johnsoni, an amphibian that shows morphological relationships to two modern frogs. One is Rana pipiens, the Northern leopard frog, now native to parts of Canada southward through Kentucky and westward to New Mexico (southernmost occurrence is in Panama, Central America, though this is possibly an undescribed species); it prefers grasslands, lakeshores, and marshes. The other resemblance is to the California Red-legged frog Rana draytoni (historically endemic to California's western Sierra Nevada foothills and coastal areas, southward to the northern Baja peninsula, though for all intents and purposes it's been extirpated from Los Angeles south to the Baja border); in optimal natural habitat, the California Red-legged frog likes ponds, streams, marshes, and springs, preferably with deep pools that contain abundant overhanging willows and a fringe of cattails.

Of course, it is well to remember that one must not collect vertebrate fossils on public lands without first securing a special use permit from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), a permit issued solely to individuals with a minimum B.S. degree from an accredited university who either represent an officially recognized museum, or seek to undertake scientific research projects that can be fully verified as authentic by the petitioned authorities.

Another fossil type represented in the local late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation near Virginia City, Nevada, is the arthropod--specifically, insects. They occur in detrital, non-diatomaceous strata slightly older than the fossil plants, but they're still in the neighborhood of approximately 12.7 million years old. The matrix upon which they're preserved is quite reminiscent of the classic paper shale deposits at world-famous Fossil Valley, Great Basin Desert, Nevada (now a federally protected region, completely off limits to unauthorized collectors). Here, though, the brownish to tan shale beds that exhibit cleavable planes of deposition no thicker than a proverbial sheet of paper are nowhere near as extensively exposed as those featured at Fossil Valley, and the insect preservations, while sometimes superbly striking, remain far less commonly encountered, as well. Unfortunate, that--most obviously--but due to the wholly natural vagaries of variable fossil abundance in the geologic record, that's exactly what one expects to experience in the field from time to time. Paleoentomologic specimens thus far identified from the Comstock Lode/Virginia City fossil district disclose dominantly diminutive dipteran varieties--that is to say, a paleo-fauna comprised of flies, gnats and midges, mainly, with a few hymenoptera also present. Examples of paleobotanical preservations also occur in the insect-bearing shales--on occasion, for example, one comes across excellently carbonized remains of winged conifer seeds and needles.

Based on the geological and paleobotanical evidence, the present-day Comestock Lode/Virginia City-area paleontologic locality indeed appeared dramatically different some 12.7 million years ago. For example, the diatomites within which the fossil leaves occur were laid down in a small lake basin at an altitude probably no higher than 2,500 feet (though regional summits would have ranged higher, of course), near the western terminus of the so-called Miocene-age Nevadaplano that gradually increased in elevation eastward toward the Rocky Mountains. By about 17 million years ago, extensional tectonic forces had already begun to pry apart portions of the nascent Great Basin, creating an emergent landscape that adumbrated modern Nevada geography; based on geophysical studies in Nevada's Pine Nut Range, westernmost ancestral Nevada (including the Virginia City area), still part of the once vast Nevadaplano, began to develop Great Basin-style geography through extensional strains at roughly 6.8 million years ago. Bordering the lake was a dominantly deciduous woodland consisting of Black cottonwood, Paper birch, Bigtooth aspen, and three kinds of willows (Lemmon's willow, Red willow, and coastal willow). A mixed conifer/Big tree forest reached the shoreline along well-drained gravelly stream banks that penetrated the riparian association. In addition to Lawson cypress and giant sequoia, the primary forest species present, there were also numerous examples of Douglas-fir, western western white pine, ponderosa pine, white fir, mountain hemlock, Foxtail pine, a second species of cypress, Golden chinquapin, Shagbark hickory, Pacific madrone, and Chinese evergreen oak. Included in the forest community were such understory shrubs as bitter cherry, serviceberry, Deer brush, Flowering currant, Western azalea, Cascades oregon grape, oceanspray, and Mountain alder. Modern-day botanic associations that most closely resemble the plant types preserved in the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation near Virginia City can be explored in such California areas as: Calaveras Big Trees State Park; Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park; General Grant Grove, Kings Canyon National Park; Sequoia Lake in Fresno County; and the south fork of the Sacramento River, southwest of Mount Shasta.

Not only did the landscape support a greater variety of vegetation than the present-day Great Basin terrain, but the climate of those ancient late middle Miocene times was also corresondingly more temperate. Today, rainfall in the region is about 15 inches yearly; yet, the known requirements of living members of the fossil flora show that at least 20 inches more rain fell approximately 12 to 13 million years ago, or roughly 35 inches annually. The Miocene rains were distributed as both winter and summer showers--in other words, pretty much year-round--whereas today's Mediterranean-style meteorological patterns, in areas of California's western Sierra Nevada foothills that support giant sequoias and other plants either identical or at least very similar to those observed in the fossil flora, produce effective rain and snow only from winter through spring; summers there typically provide but a paucity of precipitation, creating a somewhat less mesic environment than what existed in the vicinity of Virginia City during late middle Miocene times. That difference in seasonal rainfall eliminated from modern Sierran sequoia habitats all botanic species in the fossil flora that require regular, substantial summer showers: paper birch; Chinese evergreen oak; Lawson Cypress; a second species of cypress (Cupressus sp.); mountain hemlock; and Shagbark hickory. At the fossil site today, virtually every ounce of effective precipitation arrives as snow during the winter. Probably the Miocene frost-free season was as long as seven months--while today it's closer to four. In general, it appears that late middle Miocene winters were much warmer and summertimes cooler than those observed during recent times.

Today, Virginia City lies on the western edge of the arid Great Basin. As a physiographic province, this mountainous land dominates all of Nevada, in addition to portions of eastern California, southeastern Oregon, southern Idaho, and western Utah. It is a region characterized by three archetypical botanic types--sagebrush, juniper, and pinyon pine. Yet, the Comstock Lode-vicinity fossil plants prove that 12.7 million years ago a diverse deciduous and evergreen dicotyledon community mingled with a rich mixed conifer forest amid a moist environment quite similar to a giant sequoia/Big tree grove in present-day California.

At that distant Miocene time, the southern to central Sierra Nevada district was but a relatively minor ridge, perhaps 3,000 feet high, and nourishing rainstorms from the Pacific had free run across ancestral west-central Nevada. Vegetation was lush, the climate temperate--a rain-saturated humid scene reminiscent of today's western foothills of the Sierra Nevada and a tributary of the Sacramento River near Mount Shasta.

Eventually, about three million years ago, the central to southern Sierra began to rise in earnest, reaching skyward, thrust upwards thousands of feet by potent tectonic forces, until the now exposed western slopes captured most of the eastward-driven precipitation. In ancient Nevada, the once extensive forests of Big trees died back, shrinking, finding their final refuge in isolated, environmentally favorable localities in the western Sierran foothills. Aridity reigned. The numerous lakes and streams dried up, vanished, leaving behind within secret sedimentary layers their wonderful evidence of a prehistoric age, the fossil plants, insects and frogs waiting in the rocks, waiting for us to learn of what once existed in this part of western Nevada so many millions of years ago.

On-Site Photographs

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Click on the images for larger pictures. Left and right--Seekers of paleontological adventure at exposures of plant and frog-bearing diatomites (composed predominantly of diatoms, a microscopic single-celled photosynthesizing algae) in the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation at a locality in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada. Photographs originally taken with a Minolta 35mm camera.

Click on the images for larger pictures. Left--A Miocene aficionado excavates insect--bearing shales in the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation near Virginia City, Nevada. Right--That red backpack at middle left sits atop insect-yielding shales in the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation not far from the world-famous Comstock Lode at Virginia City, Nevada. Photographs originally taken with a Nixon 35mm camera.

Click on the images for larger pictures. Left--That red backpack at lower-center rests atop insect-yielding shales in the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation not far from Virginia City, Nevada. The extremely fine-grained detrital strata produce carbonized remains of diptera (flies, gnats and midges) and hymenoptera insects, primarily. Right--Exposures of whitish diatomites (composed predominantly of diatoms, a microscopic single-celled photosynthesizing algae) in roughly center of photograph, situated geographically in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada, belong to the plant and frog-bearing late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation. Photographs originally taken with a Nixon 35mm camera.

Click on the images for larger pictures. Left--An enthusiastic paleontology adventurer investigates plant and frog-bearing diatomites (they contain prolific quantities of diatoms, a microscopic single-celled photosynthesizing algae) of the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation at a locality near Virginia City, Nevada. Right--An individual fascinated with paleoentomology searches for fossil insects in siliceous shales of the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation near Virginia City, Nevada. Photograph at left originally taken with a Minolta 35mm camera; image at right captured with a Nikon 35mm camera.

Click on the images for larger pictures. Left--A seeker of paleontological investigations is parked within striking distance of plant, insect and frog-bearing sediments of the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation (an exposure of which can be observed at upper right) near Virginia City, Nevada. Right--A late afternoon vista from the plant, insect, and frog-bearing locality in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada. Patches of off-whitish sediments at right-center belong to the fossiliferous late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation. Photographs originally taken with a Minolta 35mm camera.

Photographs Of Fossils

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Click on the images for larger pictures. Left--A leaf from Salix laevigatoides, commonly called the Miocene counterpart of the Red willow. Middle--Leaf from Amelanchier alvordensis, the Miocene analog of the western serviceberry. Right--A leafy conifer twig from Pinus wheeleri, the Miocene equivalent of the western white pine. All specimens collected by author from the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation (approximately 12.7 million years old) in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada; originally photographed with a Minolta 35mm camera.

Click on the images for larger pictures. Left--A leaf from Populus washoensis, the Miocene analog of the modern Bigtooth aspen. Note how the long delicate stem actually lies preserved on two distinct bedding planes, along with a small portion of the leaf, seen just to the left of where the stem connects with the bottom of the leaf. Right--A leaf from Populus eotremuloides, the Miocene equivalent of today's Black cottonwood. Specimens collected by author from the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation (approximately 12.7 million years old) in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada; originally photographed with a Minolta 35mm camera.

Genus-species in captions are names for Miocene analogs of today's plants

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Click on the images for larger pictures. All three specimens from the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation, as exposed at a locality not far from Virginia City, Nevada. Left--A leafy twig from Chamaecyparis linguaefolia, the Lawson cypress; Middle--A leaf from a paper birch, called scientifically Betula thor. Right--a leaf from a Black cottonwood, Populus eotremuloides. Photographs courtesy Daniel I. Axelrod.

Click on the images for larger pictures. All three specimens from the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation, as exposed at a locality not far from Virginia City, Nevada. Left--Leaf from a Shagbark hickory, assigned to genus-species Carya bendirei. Middle--Leaf from what paleobotanists call Mahonia reticulata, the Cascades oregon grape. Right--A leaf from a Bigtooth aspen, genus-species Populus washoensis. Photographs courtesy Daniel I. Axelrod.

Click on the images for large pictures. All three specimens from the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation, as exposed at a locality in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada. Left--A leafy twig from a giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron chaneyi. Middle--Leaf from what paleobotanists call Arbutus matthesii, the Pacific madrone. Right--A leaf from Salix knowltoni, commonly called the Lemmon's willow. Photographs courtesy Daniel I. Axelrod.

Click on the images for large pictures. All three specimens from the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation, as exposed at a locality in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada. Left--A leaf from the Deer brush, Ceanothus chaneyi. Middle--Leaf from Rhodedendron gianellana, the western azalea. Right--A seed from Abies concoloroides, the white fir. Photographs courtesy Daniel I. Axelrod.

Click on the images for large pictures. All three specimens from the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation, as exposed at a locality in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada. Left--A seed from Pinus wheeleri, the western white pine. Middle--A cone from the Foxtail pine, Pinus balfouroides. Right--A leaf from a Chinese evergreen oak, Quercus simulata. Photographs courtesy Daniel I. Axelrod.

 

Click on the images for large pictures. Insects from the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation, in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada. Left to right: Two diptera specimens--a fly and a midge, respectively. Images courtesy the University California Museum of Paleontology; photographed by Iyawnna Hazzard. I edited and processed them through photoshop. Note 2mm scale bar at bottom left of pictures.

Click on the images for large pictures. Insects from the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation, in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada. Left--A diptera gnat (the rectangular black object at lower left, below the arthropod, is a carbonized piece of wood. Right--A hymenoptera insect; note that three of its four wings are discernible. In addition, the specimen underwent interesting taphonomic processes; not long after settling on the muddy bottom ooze of a Miocene lake some 12.7 million years ago, the arthropod's body began to disarticulate due to natural decay activity, so that the head and abdominen broke apart from the thorax along roughly the same horizontal plane, and remained in those positions, suggesting extraordinarily calm lacustrine conditions during its brief time exposed on the lake floor, prior to eventual burial. Images courtesy the University California Museum of Paleontology; photographed by Iyawnna Hazzard. I edited and processed them through photoshop. Note 2mm scale bar at top left and bottom left of pictures, respectively.

Click on the image for a larger picture. A frog skeleton from the late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation, as exposed in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada. It's called scientifically Rana johnsoni and shows a morphological relationship to two modern frogs. One is Rana pipiens, the Northern leopard frog, now native to parts of Canada southward through Kentucky and westward to New Mexico (southernmost occurrence is in Panama, Central America, though this is possibly an undescribed species); it prefers grasslands, lakeshores, and marshes. The other resemblance is to the California Red-legged frog Rana draytoni (historically endemic to California's western Sierra Nevada foothills and coastal areas, southward to the northern Baja peninsula, though for all intents and purposes it's been extirpated from Los Angeles south to the Baja border); in optimal natural habitat, the California Red-legged frog likes ponds, streams, marshes, and springs, preferably with deep pools that contain abundant overhanging willows and a fringe of cattails. Photograph courtesy a specific technical document.

Giant Sequoias

Modern places where the fossil plants near Virignia City, Nevada--including giant sequoias--now grow

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Click on the images for larger pictures. Most of the plants found as fossils in the 12.7 million year-old late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation near Virginia City, Nevada,--including giant sequoias--now grow in Giant Forest (Sequoia National Park) and Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California.

Left--The General Sherman Tree--a giant sequoia/Big tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum) at the Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park, western slopes California's Sierra Nevada. It is arguably the largest living organism on Earth, and indisputably the largest tree on Earth; 36.5 feet in diameter, 102.6 feet in circumference, 274.9 feet tall, estimated weight at 2.7 million pounds, and a trunk volume of 52,513 cubic feet. It is approximately 2,200–2,700 years old. And it's still growing--every year it adds enough wood to make a 60 foot tall tree. Named in 1879 by naturalist James Wolverton for William Tecumseh Sherman, an American Civil War general; Wolverton had served under Sherman as a lieutenant in the 9th Indiana Cavalry. Right--A giant sequoia at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, western slopes of California's Sierra Nevada; it is roughly 20 feet in diameter. Many of those pines growing alongside it are impressive conifers in their own right, but remain dramatically dwarfed by the massive dimensions of the Big tree. Photographs originally taken with a Minolta 35mm camera.

Click on the images for larger pictures. Most of the plants found as fossils in the 12.7 million year-old late middle Miocene Coal Valley Formation near Virginia City, Nevada--including giant sequoias--now grow in Giant Forest (Sequoia National Park) and Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California.

Left--A group of three giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, western slopes of California's Sierra Nevada. Right--A fallen giant sequoia/Big tree, with its gargantuan root system now exposed, at Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park, western slopes of California's Sierra Nevada. Photographs originally taken with a Minolta 35mm camera.

Virginia City, Nevada

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Click on the images for larger pictures. Google Earth street car perspectives that I edited and processed through photoshop. Left--A view almost directly north to the southern entrance to Virginia City, Nevada, along C Street. That's the historic Fourth Ward School Grammer-High School, designed by architect C. M. Bennett in 1876 (graduated its last class in 1936) at roughly center of photograph. Image captured in June, 2018. Right--A view northward along the heart of C Street in Virginia City, Nevada. Famous Bucket of Blood Saloon at right; has operated pretty much continuously since 1876. Folks familiar with the old television western Bonanza might recollect that the Cartwright family (Ben, Hoss, Adam, and Little Joe) used to pop into the Bucket of Blood for beers every now and then. Image captured in June, 2019.

Click on the images for larger pictures. Left--A view almost directly eastward to the Mackay Mansion (constructed in 1860) on D Street in Virginia City, Nevada, home of John William Mackay, one of the four so-called Bonanza Kings of the Comstock Lode, who made fortunes in Virginia City silver mining and other industrial ventures. In 1908, the widow and son of John William Mackay (born 1831 in Ireland, died 1902 in London, England) presented to the University of Nevada Reno the Mackay School of Mines building. A Google Earth Street Car perspective, originally captured in June 2019, that I edited and processed through photoshop. Right--Looking west across Virginia City, Nevada. Photograph courtesy Chuck Holton, who captured it on 4-10-2006.

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Paleontology-Related Pages

Web sites I have created pertaining to fossils

  • Fossils In Death Valley National Park: A site dedicated to the paleontology, geology, and natural wonders of Death Valley National Park; lots of on-site photographs of scenic localities within the park; images of fossils specimens; links to many virtual field trips of fossil-bearing interest.
  • Fossil Insects And Vertebrates On The Mojave Desert, California: Journey to two world-famous fossil sites in the middle Miocene Barstow Formation: one locality yields upwards of 50 species of fully three-dimensional, silicified freshwater insects, arachnids, and crustaceans that can be dissolved free and intact from calcareous concretions; a second Barstow Formation district provides vertebrate paleontologists with one of the greatest concentrations of Miocene mammal fossils yet recovered from North America--it's the type locality for the Bartovian State of the Miocene Epoch, 15.9 to 12.5 million years ago, with which all geologically time-equivalent rocks in North American are compared.
  • A Visit To Fossil Valley, Great Basin Desert, Nevada: Take a virtual field trip to a Nevada locality that yields the most complete, diverse, fossil assemblage of terrestrial Miocene plants and animals known from North America--and perhaps the world, as well. Yields insects, leaves, seeds, conifer needles and twigs, flowering structures, pollens, petrified wood, diatoms, algal bodies, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, bird feathers, fish, gastropods, pelecypods (bivalves), and ostracods.
  • Fossils At Red Rock Canyon State Park, California: Visit wildly colorful Red Rock Canyon State Park on California's northern Mojave Desert, approximately 130 miles north of Los Angeles--scene of innumerable Hollywood film productions and commercials over the years--where the Middle to Late Miocene (13 to 7 million years old) Dove Spring Formation, along with a classic deposit of petrified woods, yields one of the great terrestrial, land-deposited Miocene vertebrate fossil faunas in all the western United States.
  • Late Pennsylvanian Fossils In Kansas: Travel to the midwestern plains to discover the classic late Pennsylvanian fossil wealth of Kansas--abundant, supremely well-preserved associations of such invertebrate animals as brachiopods, bryozoans, corals, echinoderms, fusulinids, mollusks (gastropods, pelecypods, cephalopods, scaphopods), and sponges; one of the great places on the planet to find fossils some 307 to 299 million years old.
  • Fossil Plants Of The Ione Basin, California: Head to Amador County in the western foothills of California's Sierra Nevada to explore the fossil leaf-bearing Middle Eocene Ione Formation of the Ione Basin. This is a completely undescribed fossil flora from a geologically fascinating district that produces not only paleobotanically invaluable suites of fossil leaves, but also world-renowned commercial deposits of silica sand, high-grade kaolinite clay and the extraordinarily rare Montan Wax-rich lignites (a type of low grade coal).
  • Ice Age Fossils At Santa Barbara, California--Journey to the famed So Cal coastal community of Santa Barbara (about a 100 miles north of Los Angeles) to explore one of the best marine Pleistocene invertebrate fossil-bearing areas on the west coast of the United States; that's where the middle Pleistocene Santa Barbara Formation yields nearly 400 species of pelecypod bivalve mollusks, gastropods, chitons, scaphopods, pteropods, brachiopods, bryozoans, corals, ostracods (minute bivalve crustaceans), worm tubes, and foraminifers.
  • Trilobites In The Marble Mountains, Mojave Desert, California: Take a trip to the place that first inspired my life-long fascination and interest in fossils--the classic trilobite quarry in the Lower Cambrian Latham Shale, in the Marble Mountains of California's Mojave Desert. It's a special place, now included in the rather recently established Trilobite Wilderness, where some 21 species of ancient plants and animals have been found--including trilobites, an echinoderm, a coelenterate, mollusks, blue-green algae and brachiopods.
  • Dinosaur-Age Fossil Leaves At Del Puerto Creek, California: Journey to the western edge of California's Great Central Valley to explore a classic fossil leaf locality in an upper Cretaceous section of the upper Cretaceous to Paleocene Moreno Formation; the plants you find there lived during the day of the dinosaur.
  • Early Cambrian Fossils Of Westgard Pass, California: Visit the Westgard Pass area, a world-renowned geologic wonderland several miles east of Big Pine, California, in the neighboring White-Inyo Mountains, to examine one of the best places in the world to find archaeocyathids--an enigmatic invertebrate animal that went extinct some 510 million years ago, never surviving past the early Cambrian; also present there in rocks over a half billion years old are locally common trilobites, plus annelid and arthropod trails, and early echinoderms.
  • Plant Fossils At The La Porte Hydraulic Gold Mine, California: Journey to a long-abandoned hydraulic gold mine in the neighborhood of La Porte, northern Sierra Nevada, California, to explore the upper Eocene La Porte Tuff, which yields some 43 species of Cenozoic plants, mainly a bounty of beautifully preserved leaves 34.2 million years old.
  • A Visit To Ammonite Canyon, Nevada: Explore one of the best-exposed, most complete fossiliferous marine late Triassic through early Jurassic geologic sections in the world--a place where the important end-time Triassic mass extinction has been preserved in the paleontological record. Lots of key species of ammonites, brachiopods, corals, gastropods and pelecypods.
  • Fossil Plants At The Chalk Bluff Hydraulic Gold Mine, California: Take a field trip to the Chalk Bluff hydraulic gold mine, western foothills of California's Sierra Nevada, for leaves, seeds, flowering structures, and petrified wood from some 70 species of middle Eocene plants.
  • Fossils In Millard County, Utah: Take virtual field trips to two world-famous fossil localities in Millard County, Utah--Wheeler Amphitheater in the trilobite-bearing middle Cambrian Wheeler Shale; and Fossil Mountain in the brachiopod-ostracod-gastropod-echinoderm-trilobite rich lower Ordovician Pogonip Group.
  • Paleozoic Era Fossils At Mazourka Canyon, Inyo County, California: Visit a productive Paleozoic Era fossil-bearing area near Independence, California--along the east side of California's Owens Valley, with the great Sierra Nevada as a dramatic backdrop--a paleontologically fascinating place that yields a great assortment of invertebrate animals.
  • Late Triassic Ichthyosaur And Invertebrate Fossils In Nevada: Journey to two classic, world-famous fossil localities in the Upper Triassic Luning Formation of Nevada--Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park and Coral Reef Canyon. At Berlin-Ichthyosaur, observe in-situ the remains of several gigantic ichthyosaur skeletons preserved in a fossil quarry; then head out into the hills, outside the state park, to find plentiful pelecypods, gastropods, brachiopods and ammonoids. At Coral Reef Canyon, find an amazing abundance of corals, sponges, brachiopods, echinoids (sea urchins), pelecypods, gastropods, belemnites and ammonoids.
  • Fossils From The Kettleman Hills, California: Visit one of California's premiere Pliocene-age (approximately 4.5 to 2.0 million years old) fossil localities--the Kettleman Hills, which lie along the western edge of California's Great Central Valley northwest of Bakersfield. This is where innumerable sand dollars, pectens, oysters, gastropods, "bulbous fish growths" and pelecypods occur in the Etchegoin, San Joaquin and Tulare Formations.
  • Field Trip To The Kettleman Hills Fossil District, California: Take a virtual field trip to a classic site on the western side of California's Great Central Valley, roughly 80 miles northwest of Bakersfield, where several Pliocene-age (roughly 4.5 to 2 million years old) geologic rock formations yield a wealth of diverse, abundant fossil material--sand dollars, scallop shells, oysters, gastropods and "bulbous fish growths" (fossil bony tumors--found nowhere else, save the Kettleman Hills), among many other paleontological remains.
  • A Visit To The Sharktooth Hill Bone Bed, Southern California: Travel to the dusty hills near Bakersfield, California, along the eastern side of the Great Central Valley in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, to explore the world-famous Sharktooth Hill Bone Bed, a Middle Miocene marine deposit some 16 to 15 million years old that yields over a hundred species of sharks, rays, bony fishes, and sea mammals from a geologic rock formation called the Round Mountain Silt Member of the Temblor Formation; this is the most prolific marine, vertebrate fossil-bearing Middle Miocene deposit in the world.
  • High Sierra Nevada Fossil Plants, Alpine County, California: Visit a remote fossil leaf and petrified wood locality in the Sierra Nevada, at an altitude over 8,600 feet, slightly above the local timberline, to find 7 million year-old specimens of cypress, Douglas-fir, White fir, evergreen live oak, and giant sequoia, among others.
  • In Search Of Fossils In The Tin Mountain Limestone, California: Journey to the Death Valley area of Inyo County, California, to explore the highly fossiliferous Lower Mississippian Tin Mountain Limestone; visit three localities that provide easy access to a roughly 358 million year-old calcium carbate accumulation that contains well preserved corals, brachiopods, bryozoans, crinoids, and ostracods--among other major groups of invertebrate animals.
  • Middle Triassic Ammonoids From Nevada: Travel to a world-famous fossil locality in the Great Basin Desert of Nevada, a specific place that yields some 41 species of ammonoids, in addition to five species of pelecypods and four varieties of belemnites from the Middle Triassic Prida Formation, which is roughly 235 million years old; many paleontologists consider this specific site the single best Middle Triassic, late Anisian Stage ammonoid locality in the world. All told, the Prida Formation yields 68 species of ammonoids spanning the entire Middle Triassic age, or roughly 241 to 227 million years ago.
  • Late Miocene Fossil Leaves At Verdi, Washoe County, Nevada: Explore a fascinating fossil leaf locality not far from Reno, Nevada; find 18 species of plants that prove that 5.8 million years ago this part of the western Great Basin Desert would have resembled, floristically, California's lush green Gold Country, from Placerville south to Jackson.
  • Fossils Along The Loneliest Road In America: Investigate the extraordinary fossil wealth along some 230 miles of The Loneliest Road In America--US Highway 50 from the vicinity of Eureka, Nevada, to Delta in Millard County, Utah. Includes on-site images and photographs of representative fossils (with detailed explanatory text captions) from every geologic rock deposit I have personally explored in the neighborhood of that stretch of Great Basin asphalt. The paleontologic material ranges in geologic age from the middle Eocene (about 48 million years ago) to middle Cambrian (approximately 505 million years old).
  • Fossil Bones In The Coso Range, Inyo County, California: Visit the Coso Range Wilderness, west of Death Valley National Park at the southern end of California's Owens Valley, where vertebrate fossils some 4.8 to 3.0 million years old can be observed in the Pliocene-age Coso Formation: It's a paleontologically significant place that yields many species of mammals, including the remains of Equus simplicidens, the Hagerman Horse, named for its spectacular occurrences at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in Idaho; Equus simplicidens is considered the earliest known member of the genus Equus, which includes the modern horse and all other equids.
  • Field Trip To A Vertebrate Fossil Locality In The Coso Range, California: Take a cyber-visit to the famous bone-bearing Pliocene Coso Formation, Coso Mountains, Inyo County, California; includes detailed text for the field trip, plus on-site images and photographs of vertebrate fossils.
  • Fossil Plants At Aldrich Hill, Western Nevada: Take a field trip to western Nevada, in the vicinity of Yerington, to famous Aldrich Hill, where one can collect some 35 species of ancient plants--leaves, seeds and twigs--from the Middle Miocene Aldirch Station Formation, roughly 12 to 13 million years old. Find the leaves of evergreen live oak, willow, and Catalina Ironwood (which today is restricted in its natural habitat solely to the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California), among others, plus the seeds of many kinds of conifers, including spruce; expect to find the twigs of Giant Sequoias, too.
  • Fossils From Pleistocene Lake Manix, California: Explore the badlands of the Manix Lake Beds on California's Mojave Desert, an Upper Pleistocene deposit that produces abundant fossil remains from the silts and sands left behind by a great fresh water lake, roughly 350,000 to 19,000 years old--the Manix Beds yield many species of fresh water mollusks (gastropods and pelecypods), skeletal elements from fish (the Tui Mojave Chub and Three-Spine Stickleback), plus roughly 50 species of mammals and birds, many of which can also be found in the incredible, world-famous La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles.
  • Field Trip To Pleistocene Lake Manix, California: Go on a virtual field trip to the classic, fossiliferous badlands carved in the Upper Pleistocene Manix Formation, Mojave Desert, California. It's a special place that yields beaucoup fossil remains, including fresh water mollusks, fish (the Mojave Tui Chub), birds and mammals.
  • Trilobites In The Nopah Range, Inyo County, California: Travel to a locality well outside the boundaries of Death Valley National Park to collect trilobites in the Lower Cambrian Pyramid Shale Member of the Carrara Formation.
  • Ammonoids At Union Wash, California: Explore ammonoid-rich Union Wash near Lone Pine, California, in the shadows of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. Union Wash is a ne plus ultra place to find Early Triassic ammonoids in California. The extinct cephalopods occur in abundance in the Lower Triassic Union Wash Formation, with the dramatic back-drop of the glacier-gouged Sierra Nevada skyline in view to the immediate west.
  • A Visit To The Fossil Beds At Union Wash, Inyo County California: A virtual field trip to the fabulous ammonoid accumulations in the Lower Triassic Union Wash Formation, Inyo County, California--situated in the shadows of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.
  • Ordovician Fossils At The Great Beatty Mudmound, Nevada: Visit a classic 475-million-year-old fossil locality in the vicinity of Beatty, Nevada, only a few miles east of Death Valley National Park; here, the fossils occur in the Middle Ordovician Antelope Valley Limestone at a prominent Mudmound/Biohern. Lots of fossils can be found there, including silicified brachiopods, trilobites, nautiloids, echinoderms, bryozoans, ostracodes and conodonts.
  • Paleobotanical Field Trip To The Sailor Flat Hydraulic Gold Mine, California: Journey on a day of paleobotanical discovery with the FarWest Science Foundation to the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada--to famous Sailor Flat, an abandoned hydraulic gold mine of the mid to late 1800s, where members of the foundation collect fossil leaves from the "chocolate" shales of the Middle Eocene auriferous gravels; all significant specimens go to the archival paleobotanical collections at the University California Museum Of Paleontology in Berkeley.
  • Early Cambrian Fossils In Western Nevada: Explore a 518-million-year-old fossil locality several miles north of Death Valley National Park, in Esmeralda County, Nevada, where the Lower Cambrian Harkless Formation yields the largest single assemblage of Early Cambrian trilobites yet described from a specific fossil locality in North America; the locality also yields archeocyathids (an extinct sponge), plus salterella (the "ice-cream cone fossil"--an extinct conical animal placed into its own unique phylum, called Agmata), brachiopods and invertebrate tracks and trails.
  • Fossil Leaves And Seeds In West-Central Nevada: Take a field trip to the Middlegate Hills area in west-central Nevada. It's a place where the Middle Miocene Middlegate Formation provides paleobotany enthusiasts with some 64 species of fossil plant remains, including the leaves of evergreen live oak, tanbark oak, bigleaf maple, and paper birch--plus the twigs of giant sequoias and the winged seeds from a spruce.
  • Ordovician Fossils In The Toquima Range, Nevada: Explore the Toquima Range in central Nevada--a locality that yields abundant graptolites in the Lower to Middle Ordovician Vinini Formation, plus a diverse fauna of brachiopods, sponges, bryozoans, echinoderms and ostracodes from the Middle Ordovician Antelope Valley Limestone.
  • Fossil Plants In The Dead Camel Range, Nevada: Visit a remote site in the vicinity of Fallon, Nevada, where the Middle Miocene Desert Peak Formation provides paleobotany enthusiasts with 22 species of nicely preserved leaves from a variety of deciduous trees and evergreen live oaks, in addition to samaras (winged seeds), needles and twigs from several types of conifers.
  • Early Triassic Ammonoid Fossils In Nevada: Visit the two remote localities in Nevada that yield abundant, well-preserved ammonoids in the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, some 240 million years old--one of the sites just happens to be the single finest Early Triassic ammonoid locality in North America.
  • Fossil Plants At Buffalo Canyon, Nevada: Explore the wilds of west-central Nevada, a number of miles from Fallon, where the Middle Miocene Buffalo Canyon Formation yields to seekers of paleontology some 54 species of deciduous and coniferous varieties of 15-million-year-old leaves, seeds and twigs from such varieties as spruce, fir, pine, ash, maple, zelkova, willow and evergreen live oak
  • High Inyo Mountains Fossils, California: Take a ride to the crest of the High Inyo Mountains to find abundant ammonoids and pelecypods--plus, some shark teeth and terrestrial plants in the Upper Mississippian Chainman Shale, roughly 325 million years old.
  • Field Trip To The Copper Basin Fossil Flora, Nevada: Visit a remote region in Nevada, where the Late Eocene Dead Horse Tuff provides seekers of paleobotany with some 42 species of ancient plants, roughly 39 to 40 million years old, including the leaves of alder, tanbark oak, Oregon grape and sassafras.
  • Fossil Plants And Insects At Bull Run, Nevada: Head into the deep backcountry of Nevada to collect fossils from the famous Late Eocene Chicken Creek Formation, which yields, in addition to abundant fossil fly larvae, a paleobotanically wonderful association of winged seeds and fascicles (bundles of needles) from many species of conifers, including fir, pine, spruce, larch, hemlock and cypress. The plants are some 37 million old and represent an essentially pure montane conifer forest, one of the very few such fossil occurrences in the Tertiary Period of the United States.
  • A Visit To The Early Cambrian Waucoba Spring Geologic Section, California: Journey to the northwestern sector of Death Valley National Park to explore the classic, world-famous Waucoba Spring Early Cambrian geologic section, first described by the pioneering paleontologist C.D. Walcott in the late 1800s; surprisingly well preserved 540-510 million-year-old remains of trilobites, invertebrate tracks and trails, Girvanella algal oncolites and archeocyathids (an extinct variety of sponge) can be observed in situ.
  • Petrified Wood From The Shinarump Conglomerate: An image of a chunk of petrified wood I collected from the Upper Triassic Shinarump Conglomerate, outside of Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado.
  • Fossil Giant Sequoia Foliage From Nevada: Images of the youngest fossil foliage from a giant sequoia ever discovered in the geologic record--the specimen is Lower Pliocene in geologic age, around 5 million years old.
  • Some Favorite Fossil Brachiopods Of Mine: Images of several fossil brachiopods I have collected over the years from Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic-age rocks.
  • For information on what can and cannot be collected legally from America's Public Lands, take a look at Fossils On America's Public Lands and Collecting On Public Lands--brochures that the Bureau Of Land Management has allowed me to transcribe.
  • In Search Of Vanished Ages--Field Trips To Fossil Localities In California, Nevada, And Utah--My fossils-related field trips in full print book form (pdf). 98,703 words (equivalent to a medium-size hard cover work of non-fiction); 250 printed pages (equivalent to about 380 pages in hard cover book form); 27 chapters; 30 individual field trips to places of paleontological interest; 60 photographs--representative on-site images and pictures of fossils from each locality visited.

United States Geological Survey Papers (Public Domain)

Online versions of USGS publications

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