Fossil and other specimens found in local area form part of major new exhibit at University of Oregon natural history museum

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF OREGON MUSEUM OF NATURAL AND CULTURAL HISTORY - Part of the new 'Explore Oregon' exhibit, this artist's rendering shows some of the megafauna whose remains have been found in the Woodburn area, depicted in front of Woodburn High School.For modern-day Oregonians, the glimpse into the past offered by natural history and geology exhibits such as the newly opened “Explore Oregon” conveys what seems to be a bizarre and fantastic world.

And indeed, based on actual fossils found at excavation sites in Woodburn, the local area of 13,000-plus years ago would have featured some residents that would be very unusual to us today, from giant “monster birds” to 7-foot-tall sloths, and even camels. (Yes, camels.)

But, according to Dr. Edward Davis, the University of Oregon paleontologist who served as science adviser for “Explore Oregon,” as weird as such a picture may seem, it’s not precisely correct to think of this bygone age as extraordinary or abnormal.

“People tend to look at that and think it’s strange, but actually, now is the strange time,” Davis said. “If you look back through the fossil record of Oregon, there are always these big animals until today. Not having mammoths and horses and bison and camels — that’s the strange thing.”

Explore Oregon combines cutting-edge scientific displays with works of art that bring the Beaver State’s deep past to life. The hall that houses the exhibit — which opened last week — effectively doubles the U of O’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History’s exhibition space and represents a major expansion of its natural history offerings.

A number of specimens discovered in the Woodburn area are on display at the new exhibit, many of which provide important insight into the late Pleistocene Epoch — a period characterized by repeated, widespread glaciations that lasted until about 11,700 years ago.

The Woodburn excavations form part of the core of Explore Oregon’s climate change and Pleistocene megafauna exhibits, Davis said, the goals of which are to give visitors “an overview of the climate history and evolutionary history of Oregon.”

There are other areas in the state where Pleistocene deposits have been found, Davis said, but Woodburn’s offerings stand out.

“Woodburn is the one that has the most continuous and extensive deposits of this period,” he said. “It’s really like the Rosetta Stone of Pleistocene paleontology.”

The specimens include the tooth of a Paramylodon, an extinct genus of bear-sized sloths (also known as Harlan’s ground sloth), that was unearthed near Woodburn High School, and several bones from a new species of Teratornis (an enormous, extinct bird of prey whose wingspan measure more than 12 feet) dubbed “Woodburnensis” in honor of its discovery at Legion Park.

“The teratorn that came out of Woodburn is the only specimen known of that species so far,” Davis said. “So it’s a really important specimen that we want to keep behind the scenes and available for scientists to study, but there are several vertebrae and also the humerus — the upper wing bone — on display.”

One of the most important discoveries in town is also one of the smallest: tiny bog bean seeds collected by Woodburn High School biology teacher Dave Ellingson and his students during one of the digs he has led annually since 2003. Today, such beans are found only in higher, cooler elevations, which confirms that the Willamette Valley was much colder in the Pleistocene than it is now.

Explore Oregon will display not only the beans themselves, but also photos and information about Ellingson and his work with students, Davis said.

“I want visitors to understand that paleontology is something that is really accessible to everyone,” he said. “Dave is taking this unique opportunity at the high school to get students directly involved in some real scientific research that’s going on. When the students uncover these specimens, they’re becoming the first people to see them in 13,000 years. That’s a real moment of discovery, and I’m glad they’re able to get that opportunity.”

The Museum of Natural and Cultural History is a center of interdisciplinary research and education, serving the global research community, the University of Oregon, K-12 students and educators, and the wider public. Exhibits are open to the public from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for youths and seniors, and $10 for families.

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