saber-tooth cats, mastadons and mammoths – oh my!

Jeanine Poggi

Resting in foam-lined metal trays on the ground floor of the Geology Department are the latest of the department’s “finds”: fossil bones of saber-tooth cats, mastodons and mammoths dating back almost 80,000 years.

The fossils were unearthed by Dr. Robert Gray last summer at Vandenberg Air Base.

“The best place to be is the field!” he says.

Gray, who graduated from college in Idaho in1955 and earned his doctorate in paleontology from the University of Arizona in 1965. He also served as a navy officer for 21 years in various capacities – including teaching geology.

Gray’s hero is Kit Carson, the frontiersman who first explored the American West.

Inspired by his spirit, Gray is piecing together the story of evolution in the Santa Barbara area with the bones he discovered along the 51 miles of ragged cliffs at Vandenberg along with Eric Harz, a geology major.

City College is the repository for the finds as it has facilities to store them in a stable environment.

The fossil bones at the base date between 60, 000 to 80,000 years – from the warm and moist interglacial period between Ice Ages.

An Ice Age is a time when ice melts and sea level increases. This is happening now, said Gray, professor of geology for 36 years and the third-longest-serving faculty member at the college.

The bones indicate the existence of the saber-toothed cats, western horses, western camels, mammoths, mastodons (elephant-like animals) and ground sloths.

There are many possible reasons these animals became extinct – hunting by early man, glaciation or diseases, Gray said.

Coyotes and wolves, however, survived the Ice Age.

The horses we have today are not descendants of the western horses; they were brought over by Europeans.

A geologist first and foremost, Gray says, “It begins with rocks and ends with rocks”

Most of the base is vast open space covered by chaparral camouflaging any visible bone fossils, so Gray and Harz go down to the beach to view any exposed bones.

Since a state permit is required to conduct a dig, Gray said he only picked up exposed bone material.

“Most of it is wilderness with few places dotted by space communities,” said Gray, who wanted to be a football coach, but is now an expert on land animals of western Santa Barbara County.

Their equipment includes a daypack, lunch, a ladder, ropes, rock picks, aluminum foil and gunnysacks, glue, dental picks, brushes and tools.

After hiking miles through poison oak and battling ticks, the two reach the edge of the cliffs where it is almost impossible to get down to the beach.

They scout a way to scramble down steep ravines, sometimes getting wet in creeks along the way. They constantly scan the mud and gravel for fossils, which are interspersed with white stones of similar shape.

Some cliffs are 125 to 150 feet high. “It’s just another day at the office,” Harz says.

Some places have no ravines and they let themselves down by ropes.

“Some of the descents, we had to chop steps with our rock picks and get ready to self arrest with them if we were to slip,” Harz said.

It is awesome to scramble down gullies and arrive at a beach that hasn’t seen any humans in months, perhaps years, he said.

Geology major Maia Litton said Gray, 70, is the most physically fit person she knows.

“He can beat anyone,” she said. “He’s totally on a mission.”

From the beach, Gray zeros in on bones with binoculars.

“One develops an ‘eye’ for the right kinds of situations and for fossil material,” said Bruce Tiffney, geology professor at UCSB. “In many cases an old hand like Prof. Gray will see fossils where 10 people before him have missed them.”

In 1998 Gray was selected as the Distinguished Educator of the Year by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. He is the only community college professor to have been selected.

After locating a fossil, Gray and Harz plot the site on a map, and start digging.

If the rock is too hard, they dig a trench around and under the fossil to remove it.

Fragile bones are exposed using a dental toothpick or a soft brush, and strengthened with glue before they are covered with aluminum foil and pried out.

Bones too fragile to move are wrapped in wet gunnysacks and “jacketed” with layers of plaster for stability.

Before cataloging and making casts at the lab, William Harz, lab supervisor for 28 years, cleans and glues the newly discovered pieces of bone – putting together pieces of the evolutionary puzzle.