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MacKenzie's Lost Worlds In Stone

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What child hasn’t been fascinated by dinosaurs at one time or another? But for MacKenzie Smith, an early fascination turned into a lifelong passion. A student at Oregon State University, MacKenzie is studying paleontology when he’s not out hunting fossils. His interest in ancient lifeforms inspired him to join the North America Research Group, based in Hillsboro, Oregon, when he was only twelve – making him the youngest member of the paleontological organization.

As a child, Mac’s interest in fossils didn’t go unnoticed by some of the leaders in the field. When he was in fifth grade, he was asked to testify before the Oregon legislature on a proposed resolution to establish a state fossil. His testimony helped the resolution to pass with nearly unanimous support – thus a type of redwood tree called Metasequoia became Oregon’s official fossil in May 2004.

“Metasequoia was chosen for a number of reasons,” Mac explained. “For one, it is fairly abundant and covers a good portion of geologic time in Oregon: from about 33.5 to 5 million years ago. Secondly, it was originally thought to be extinct until the 1940’s when scientists rediscovered living specimens in Southern China, so it is considered a living fossil!”

To learn more about Mac and fossil hunting on the Oregon Coast, view the video to the right.

What Do I Look For?

Many of the fossils you’ll find on the Central Coast are marine organisms and may appear similar to or even be the ancestors of modern species common to the Pacific Ocean. Most of these fossils come from the Astoria Formation, a mixture of compressed sandstone and volcanic ash created between 15 and 20 million years ago.

As you wander the beach, you’ll be looking for an impression in the rock (like a xeroxed image) or a cast which is a highly accurate reproduction of the organism in stone. Bivalves, gastropods, wood and bone fossils are all plentiful if you know how to spot them, but to familiarize yourself better, read “Fossils You Can Find on Oregon Beaches” by Oregon SeaGrant or pick up a fossil identification guide at your local bookstore.

Related information: Fossil Hunting | Outdoor Etiquette

Where Do I Look?

Experts identify several beaches on the Central Coast as being the best for finding fossils, often just lying on the surface of the sand or among the rubble which falls off the sea-facing cliffs. If you’re interested in finding fossils, you might try one of these locations.

Otter Rock | Beverly Beach State Park | Moolack Beach | Agate Beach State Recreational Site | Lost Creek State Recreational Site | Brian Booth (Ona Beach) State Park

Photo credit: MacKenzie Smith

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Lost Worlds In Stone

MacKenzie describes his interest in the activity and offers some advices for finding these prehistoric treasures on the Oregon Coast.

Stone Treasures: The Law Protects Fossils

We have laws to protect certain plants, animals and places... so it stands to reason we’d have a few to protect fossils, too. The most important law is called the Omnibus Public Lands Act, Paleontological Resources Preservation – but you can just call it the OPLA-PRP. The law recognizes fossils as a “natural and irreplaceable part of America’s heritage” and provides protections so these ancient artifacts aren’t being looted from beneath our feet. The law is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. OPLA-PRP does allow major excavations for collect fossils on public lands – all those natural history museums would be pretty empty if it didn’t – but these digs have to be for serious scientific investigation and carried out by experts. Local and state laws may provide additional protections for fossils, so it’s always wise to research this a little before you start putting things in your pockets.