Cabrillo – The Curious Case of the Possibly Purloined Peripatetic Flying Ammonite Amelia

It’s not that rare to re-discover something. It happens in peoples’ lives all the time. Finding an old book from college that comes back to comfort you and yield new secrets; hearing from a friend long out of touch and revisiting old feelings; the baseball glove that you used to put under your pillow at night and carry with you everywhere when you were ten, you find in the “old stuff” box. Paleontologists do the same thing. They re-discover. Field expeditions in many places are limited to certain seasons and limited budgets so when the weather is good and the money hasn’t run out the effort goes into finding, collecting and preserving specimens, getting them to the museum or university, then curating them for researchers to come along and detail out.

This process of re-discovery can occur decades after a fossil was found. Steven J. Gould in his book Wonderful Life tells the story of the re-discovery of fossils collected in the Burgess Shale of the Canadian Rockies in the early part of the 20th century. They were first believed to be of certain type until researchers decades later began to look at them more closely and realized these fossils were of animals from heretofore unknown groups, unknown phyla, the likes of which never survived to the present! These were very early, radically different experiments in evolution with no known ancestors. A true alien menagerie, from our own Cambrian world, 500 million years ago! They lead to a vastly new way to look at evolution and thus were a truly profound re-discovery.

I was lucky to have had a small moment of (not-so-profound!) rediscovery myself this past couple years. If you’ll bear with me a little bit, the story of The Flying Ammonite, which follows, may be a little bit more interesting. I am geologist by profession and a TPERP at Cabrillo since 2008. I naturally have an interest in fossils. Fossils, the remains of ancient life after all, are where the two great sciences, Biology and Geology, meet: ancient life preserved in rock.

Our last Chief Of Natural Resources, Dr. Benjamin Pister, had patiently listened to me talk about the fossils that are so apparent in our intertidal. It is so serendipitous at Cabrillo that we have, exposed in the rocks that comprise our tide pools, fossils of marine organisms from 65 to 70 million years ago. These are primarily trace fossils, also called shadow fossils. They’re not the remains of bones or shells but rather the burrows and footprints of animals, the life activities of 65 to 70 million year-old critters. The geologic formation that these fossils rest in is the Cretaceous Point Loma Formation, also referred to as “Kp.” The Kp is well known for other types of fossils and these are on wondrous display at the San Diego Museum of Natural History. A trip there to see our San Diego Kp fossils is well worth it.

Found in the rocks of the Kp are plant fossils, bone fossils from animals like hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs), ankylosur fossils (a four-legged terrestrial dinosaur with armored skin and a club tail) and the abundant fossilized shell remains of a variety of molluscs! Most prominent among these mollusc fossils are probably the ammonite fossils. These are the coiled shells of an extinct group of cephalopod molluscs that once roamed the Cretaceous dinosaur seas! These relatives of the modern octopus, squid and pearly nautilus left their shells in the rocks of San Diego and we find them every now and then at Cabrillo National Monument.

Dr. Ben emailed me out of the blue and presented me with the article, which is in this collection of information about CABR, entitled The Story of the Flying Ammonite, by Edward Wilson, which a former CABR employee had told him of.

The Flying Ammonite story is the story of the finding and collecting of a fossil specimen. A lot of effort went into getting this big fossil out of the intertidal where it had been spotted; efforts that included a helicopter haul out! It is a good story and I recommend you read it.

To skip ahead here, after the Flying Ammonite was collected, the supervisor of the Monument, Thomas Tucker was presented with a beautifully hand made and painted cast of the ammonite by the curator of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. We know this because there is a picture of Superintendent Tucker holding the cast! (The actual fossil would weigh 500-600 pounds!). Sometime between then and now, the Flying Ammonite vanished! Was it purloined? Or did it just go on a trip across town? Dr. Ben looked for it with the help of his staff and it was not on the grounds at CABR! Where did it go?

Skip ahead to the spring of 2012. A solitary geologist (me) is making a traverse deep within the City of San Diego’s Development Services Department, where he regularly does professional business. He ascends quietly through the cavernous department using the elevator. On his way to the 5th floor the doors open briefly on the 4th floor. He spots momentarily a somewhat familiar shape across the room in a sparse visitors area. Was it the Flying Ammonite? Punching the open doors button, they drew back to confirm the finding! It was indeed the Flying Ammonite, in a display case, labeled and proud in the shadows. The peripatetic fossil had been rediscovered! Where had it been? How did it get there?

Well, despite the melodrama the story is rather straightforward. Somehow the cast of the Flying Ammonite had made its way to the San Diego Natural History Museum, where Dr. Thomas Demere is the chief of the paleontology department. He had loaned the cast to the City in response to a request from the former City Geologist, Werner Landry. The idea was to expose citizens using the City offices to some of our local geologic wonders. I contacted Dr. Demere, as he is the curator of the Flying Ammonite, and he agreed with me that the Flying Ammonite would serve the citizenry better as a public ambassador back at the Monument’s Visitor Center. With his help and with the efforts of Chief of Interpretation at the Monument, Ranger Jason Richards, the Flying Ammonite—Amelia—made her way back home where she is proudly on display representing Cabrillo National Monument’s ancient history to visitors from around the country and the world!

So, the moral of our story? Keep your eyes open you never know when you may make a discovery! Or a rediscovery! And, go to the San Diego Natural History Museum to learn even more about ancient life here in San Diego!


Don Vaughn
Volunteer in Park

Ex Terra, Scientia

Last revised 30-Jul-13