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Every Fossil Tells a Story

11/01/2014 10:01 ● Published by Sandy Kauten

Storytelling is an important tradition across cultures. Whether they’re told through songs, murals, or written or spoken words, stories help us learn about the past and celebrate our history.

But people aren’t the only ones who tell stories. We can also learn a lot about the past by “listening” to the stories that fossils tell.  Many of the fossils that scientists study are the remains of ancient organisms (living things), which have been preserved in rock or other material. It isn’t easy to become a fossil. Usually, when an organism dies, its body rots away, is eaten by something else, or breaks down due to environmental forces. But every once in a while, an organism dies in just the right place and is quickly buried by sand, soil, or some other material, which protects the organism’s remains long enough for fossilization to occur.  

The Story of Sammy, the Sabertooth Salmon

One of Oregon’s most fascinating fossils was unearthed near the town of Madras in the 1960s. Buried beneath gravel and boulders, scientists found the skull of a giant, fanged fish. Further study – and additional fossil finds – helped scientists to estimate that these prehistoric sabertooth salmon were somewhere between six and ten feet long, and weighed as much as 400 pounds!

Although sabertooth salmon were extinct by about four million years ago, their fossil remains provide today’s scientists with clues about where these fish lived and how they behaved. For example, chemical traces in the fossilized bone suggest that sabertooth salmon were very much like modern sockeye salmon: They hatched in freshwater streams and later swam to sea, where they ate a diet of plankton and lived most of their adult lives. Eventually, the fish would swim back upstream to spawn (reproduce). It’s possible that the spot near Madras is an ancient spawning ground where a number of giant fish were buried soon after they died.

While sabertooth salmon fossils have revealed a lot of important stories about their lives, they also present some mysteries. Why did the sabertooth salmon go extinct after being around for over nine million years? What exactly happened, about four million years ago, that caused this giant creature to disappear? Was its extinction caused by changes in climate? Did its habitat change so that this species could no longer survive? Were there other animals that pushed them out of the ecosystem?

Scientists at the UO and elsewhere are working to find answers to these questions, which will help us to better understand Oregon’s natural history – and may even help us do a better job of conserving our modern-day salmon populations.

The sabertooth salmon fossil that was found in the 1960s is part of the fossil collection at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History.  The fossil – known affectionately as “Sammy” – is one of the big stars in the museum’s Explore Oregon exhibit. There, visitors can see a life-size model of the sabertooth salmon, touch a replica of the fossil skull, and see actual fossils of the sabertooth salmon’s fang and vertebrae. 

The Museum of Natural and Cultural History is located at 1680 E. 15th Avenue, on the UO campus. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Visit us online at natural-history.uoregon.edu.

In Print museum of natural and cultural history November 2014 issue, Fossils sabertooth fossil archeology
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