Prehistoric Jaws

blog post photo

by Ancient Sea Monsters Production Team

Standing at the bottom of Fossil Hill in Nevada is a humbling experience. It sits among a group of hills in the Humboldt mountain range. And although these peaks won’t be giving Mount Everest a run for its money anytime soon, many of these “hills” still tower at around 5000 feet. Let’s put it this way. If I can see a snowcap at the top of a hill that I’m climbing…it’s a mountain in my book.

Fossil Hill got its name for a good reason; this hill has been a magnet for paleontologists for over 100 years. Fossils were first found in the Humboldt Range in the 1860’s by prospectors seeking out silver deposits. But its not the potential wealth of a silver strike that has drawn us here today.

We have come in search of Ichthyosaurs, which are the first sea reptiles that emerged from what were originally land based creatures. Approximately 252 million years ago, the Earth went through what is believed to be the greatest mass death in its history: the Permian-Triassic extinction. There are even some estimates say that 95% of life on the planet died. However, some life survived, including small reptiles that we think started going into the water looking for food. After millions of years, these reptiles became fully adapted to life in the sea and became Ichthyosaurs, evolving to the point where they couldn’t go back on land.

Video Preview: “Top of the Food Chain”
— A team of paleontologists are hunting the deserts of Nevada for the fossils of a sea monster.

As we started driving to Fossil Hill, my nerves started to get the best of me. I knew that we’d have to drive off the beaten path a bit, but I wasn’t expecting roads that are made with mini boulders and at some parts climbed to a near 30 degree angles. What was that bump? Did some gas line just get smashed? The sweat started to pore through my brows as I started to go over the rental car contract in my mind. I did get full insurance, right?

As we’re driving, it still takes me a minute to comprehend that where we are right now used to be underwater. Nevada, as well as most of the western United States was an ocean paradise. The fossils that we are looking for were created over 240 million years ago when one of these Ichthyosaurs died and their remains got preserved after it fell to the bottom of the ocean.  But what was then ocean mud has become solid rock after so many millions of years, and I’m amazed at how these paleontologists can distinguish what is what. To me what looks like a slight black line in a grey rock is really the rib of one of these creatures.

I was traveling with Ryosuke Motani, Lars Schmitz, Pat Embree, and Neil Kelley, and the wealth of knowledge this team has on Ichthyosaurs is incredible.Once we got to the bottom of Fossil Hill, we followed the team as they began to scour the hillside, looking for anything that might be a slight discoloration in the rock.  Our hope was to find something that could be considered an “early” Ichthyosaur. Although, we know that they evolved from a land based reptile, we still don’t have an idea of what that reptile was, or what it looked like. The “missing link”, or an Ichthyosaur that showed features of being able to live on land and in the water would be an amazing discovery, and it’s the holy grail for Ichthyosaur paleontologists.

Over the course of about three hours we walked up the hill to near the summit. Pat Embree had found a fossil in the rock and immediately Ryosuke Motani knew this creatures was really, really old. The team dug out what they could but ultimately any evidence that this creature might have land features had to stay there. The flipper was embedded in the side of the hill and a major storm was approaching.  We had to get out before the rain hit, or else the dirt roads that gave me so much trouble before would get even worse as pure mud.

Finding the time and money to dig fossils can be hard to come by, so we may never know if this new find was an early Ichthyosaur, but seeing how dedicated these paleontologists are to their field makes me want to come back and find out.

Naked Science
“Ancient Sea Monsters” premieres Thursday, November 18th at 10P et/pt.