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    John Day Fossil Beds

    National Monument Oregon

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The Beast of Frank's Creek

The Beast of Frank's Creek
6/6/98 - Ted Fremd

Remains of life preserved in a geological context (fossils) are amazingly abundant, considering what good fortune it takes for circumstances to preserve any. Previous articles in the Eagle have discussed the remarkably good record of life in the 40 to 5 million-year-old time range in the John Day Basin. It turns out this area is also a great place for discovering "things that look like fossils but aren't." In scientific terms, we call them "pseudofossils." Some students still groaningly refer to these phony fossils as Leaverite... When you find one, you "Leave 'er Right there."

One such occurrence was first noticed many years ago on a cliff face, up a creek just west of Dayville. It is large, as large as a big dinosaur tail. It even looks something like a dinosaur tail. Many people assumed, therefore, that if it looks like it, it must be a dinosaur tail and as things like that go, it grew in the telling until by the time we got wind of it, the fossil dinosaur was a colossal thing of terrific proportions. Writhing from the cliff, frozen in the last throes of its agonizing death in the liquid basalt flows, it appeared like a fearsome reminder of less kinder and gentler times. Those who had seen it eagerly described it to those who had not.

Although eager to describe it, there was also a reluctance amongst the knowledgeable to share its whereabouts, and given the value of ancient bones these days, no one wanted to see it vandalized or collected. An unintended additional motive of this strategy was that it also prevented refutation of its authenticity. Unlike a Loch Ness monster or Bigfoot, where absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, this "fossil" is stuck right in the cliff where anyone can go up and judge for themselves whether it's a grave of some ancient Godzilla or just a funny-shaped series of bumps in the hill.

One day, after years of building up a level of trust (probably forfeited as a result of this article!), a few guides took us up to the site in the early hours of the day to look it over. We marveled at how it did, indeed, resemble the tail of a Very Large Thing - although one of the members of the party cautiously remarked how it seemed to have "kinda shrunk" over the years since he'd last seen it. Unfortunately, we also noted that this shape was in solid basalt rather than sedimentary rock; organisms caught in such a hot shock are typically vaporized or at best leave a mold, rather than a cast. We also commented that there were other odd shapes in the basalt cliff nearby that, like oddly shaped clouds, might be made into Things. These just weren't real fossils. The finders of this Beast thought it was a petrified piece of a prehistoric predator simply because it looked like one; the other nearby shapes weren't because they didn't resemble any creatures anyone knew of.

This same procedure of choosing the shapes that look like fossils, while selectively ignoring hundreds of neighboring others that don't, is an easy trap to fall into with pseudofossils. It may stem from wishful thinking. It is why we "see" human footprints in some very old rocks in Texas. It is why great, painstakingly made collections of "fossil bananas and pineapples" are carefully salvaged from beds containing only nodules and sedimentary concretions. It is why curious people may bring in their "fossil" hearts (and kidneys, and stomachs, and less socially acceptable body parts) for confirmation and identification, and leave … disheartened.

Around here, though, if it looks like a fossil, most of the time it is. Actually, the Beast of Frank's Creek is probably up there. People just haven't looked in the right rocks and found it yet. And, given the age of most of the fossil bearing rocks here, it might be a mammoth instead of a dinosaur.

Next, we're off with a trusty guide to examine the Galloping Herd of Petrified Seahorses that have been reported - up a creek just south of Dayville.

Did You Know?

Image of  fossilized amynodont skulls.

The best place to see the monument's fossils is inside the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center at the Sheep Rock Unit.