Terminator Pigs of Eastern Oregon
5/99 - Ted Fremd, Paleontologist
The accompanying story deals with collecting "entelodonts" from some badlands near the Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds. These are very peculiar extinct mammals that we like to call "terminator pigs".
Imagine an animal the size of a buffalo, with an oversized head for its body, massive teeth, and a jaw with odd "scoops" on it. People ask "What did it eat?" and chances are, it ate whatever happened to be at hoof. Complete skulls (see photo) are extremely rare, and when found are magnificent fossils that take many days to remove properly.
We always need to know where something like this came from, and in this case, we hoped to be able to find a pretty good match for the hundred-year-old photograph. We were lucky; this is one of only a handful of photographs taken back in those days. Sadly, most of the thousands of beautiful specimens collected at the turn of the century have no locality data at all, making them of far less use to science.
7/13/98 - Tonia Seebart, JODA Staff
The year was 1899. Five men were embarking on an incredible expedition that would take them into the heart of eastern Oregon from The Dalles, down to Bridge Creek, and eventually to Turtle Cove. At the time, these were largely uninhabited areas. In the course of their trip, they would have to cross unbridged rivers, hunt for their own food, and brave the elements of nature. Their efforts and struggles would make them some of the first people to develop a real understanding of the geology of the area and an appreciation of its significance as an invaluable scientific resource for the study of ancient faunas.
Mr. Loye Miller, a member of the expedition, records an account of the men’s journey in a now published journal* which provides a chronicle of the first University of California field expedition into the John Day Basin. The expedition was lead by Dr. John C. Merriam, and it began a long association of the University of California with that particular area of Oregon and many additional expeditions followed.
Of particular interest in the journal is a narrative of the time they spent in the Bridge Creek beds near the town of Mitchell. The team had originally only planned on staying a week in that particular area, as their initial collecting efforts only yielded very fragmentary chips of fossilized bone. However, discovery of an exquisite Entelodon skull in the middle of their stay extended the time spent there by five days. Miller noted the discontent of many of the men for the delay, but the skull was definitely worth it. Measuring 36 inches across, it was relatively intact aside from the snout. Dr. Merriam stated that it he thought it to be, "as fine as any specimen of the kind known". They worked for days carefully removing the skull from the high claystone formation. When finished, the men loaded the entire 200 pounds on the back of one of their horses and continued on with the expedition….
Ninety-nine years, one month, and one day later, another expedition was entering the area. Though this one was not led by Merriam, but by Ted Fremd, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument paleontologist. The collectors consisted of seven individuals, each employed by the NPS. As the temperatures rose, so did the expectations of the crew. This in part by the fact that the area that they were working had not been examined for three years and had never been majorly prospected. They were entering a fossil locality known as Hatch’s Gulch, an enclave of the John Day formation near the Painted Hills Unit of the monument. It was named for the man George B. Hatch, who was included in the first Merriam expedition and labeled as the "fisherman" of the group in the writings of the journal. Though the days of Merriam and his first expedition are long past, they still played a role in the activities of the gulch that day. It was in that very location that they collected Merriam’s prized Entelodon skull all those years ago. During that time, Merriam and his men took a number of pictures of the excavation site of the skull.
Scott Foss, a current member of the paleontological team at JODA, uncovered the writings of Miller in his recent research on entelodonts. Intrigued by the journal, he wanted to find the specific location of the Entelodon locality in hopes of reproducing a modern version of the photograph (and search for more entelodont fossils of course). The most critical reason to return, however, was to determine precisely what rock layer Miller’s entelodont had come from.
One site he found was a very good possibility, but the amount of erosion and change that had occurred in the land over the last one hundred years made it very difficult to pinpoint exactly. Scott was, however, very optimistic that he had found the spot.
The number of fossils collected on this recent expedition was minimal. Al Pajak found a nice Diceratherium tooth which was noted for its odd pinkish coloration. I found an ankle and long bone from an unidentified mammal which were very spongy, fragmentary, and not well preserved. And, toward the end of the day, Kelly Cahill found part of a vertebral column that was given a tentative field identification as belonging to an Oreodon. Because of time constraints, it was coated with vinac and will be removed at a later date.
As the NPS crew was leaving Hatch’s Gulch at the end of the day, they were reminded of a quote from Miller describing the area,
"Beautiful old trees, rugged and grizzly sentinels around the walls they keep their everlasting watch over the remains of those animals of another world that have lain burried while generation after generation of these old prophets, each perhaps a thousand years, has sprung up and passed away at the post of their duty. Time is lost and years are but the pulse beat".
The sentinels will retain their wards for another day in Hatch’s Gulch.
*Reference: Miller, Loye. 1899. Journal of the first trip of University of California to John Day Beds of Eastern Oregon. J. Arnold Shotwell, ed. Museum of Natural History, Universioty of Oregon. Bulletin No. 19. Pp. 1-21.