Learn about Washington's distant past through a special exhibit, "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway," at Seattle's Burke Museum. Then take a road trip to find fossils "in the wild" around the Pacific Northwest.

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On a recent visit to the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, I examined a painting of saber-toothed animals. Dominating the top of the composition was what appeared to be a salmon. A leaping, blood-red, sockeye-lookalike with white fangs, about to leap out of the frame and clamp down on something, maybe you. Handy 3D glasses supplied nearby, helped imagine such a scenario. Ha, how cute, a saber-toothed salmon. Yeah, right.

Imagine the surprise when fossils of this fish were found, first in Oregon, then later in Northeast Washington. Not only had this sister species of sockeye salmon existed, it had been a monster — reaching lengths of up to 10 feet. Unfortunately for anglers (or fortunately, perhaps?), they went extinct a couple million years ago during the Pliocene epoch.

The image is one of the wildly whimsical paintings by artist Ray Troll currently paired with many Northwest fossils never before seen on display from the Burke Museum in its “Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway” exhibit.

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Although there are several dinosaur bones in the exhibit, alas, none are from Washington — in fact, no dinosaurs have ever been found in the state.

“Most of the sedimentary rocks in Washington state are too old or too young for dinosaurs, and a very large area of the state has been covered by volcanic rocks,” said Dr. Liz Nesbitt, Burke paleontologist and co-curator of the exhibit. “There’s very little rock exposed on the surface that comes from the age of dinosaurs in Washington, and most of it was deposited in the sea. The little bit of Late Cretaceous rock that was deposited on land contains some plant fossils, but no dinosaurs have been found.”

In fact, at the time of the dinosaurs, the western part of our state was still underwater. Even millions of years after dinosaurs went extinct, during the late Eocene epoch, the coast of Washington reached as far east as present-day Interstate 5. Washington’s sedimentary rocks did record the evolution of marine mammals, and the Burke Museum has one of the finest collections of fossil dolphins in the world.

Besides sea creatures, the most commonly found fossils in Washington are plants. Dr. Kirk Johnson from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, another co-curator of the Burke exhibit, puts in perspective the chances of finding an animal versus a plant fossil: “When you travel, you can usually find a plant easier than an animal — and it’s the same way for fossils.”

Where else to look

So fossils are easy to see in museums — but what about finding your own? You can’t just hop in your Subaru Outback and set off with a pick and a rock hammer. Most fossils are located on either private or public lands. To search on private land, you need permission, while for most public lands, you generally need a permit. Also, you have to know where to look. The best way is to go with people who know where the rocks are that might contain fossils. Some local rock clubs have fossil field trips (see “If You Go”).

The Northwest Paleontological Association meets at the Burke Museum, and welcomes nonscientists and families. “There are talks — not too technical — and field trips, and people always bring in their finds to be identified,” said Nesbitt, who attends the meetings.

So, you can join a field trip, or learn about fossils in museums such as the Burke. Or you can take your own fossil road trip around the Northwest and explore the region from a different place and time (see sidebar for suggested destinations).

Whichever approach you choose, you might learn enough to figure out that you’ve been stepping over dolphin fossils on Olympic Peninsula beaches or driving by an outcrop of Eocene palms along the freeway. Or maybe you’ll even unearth a saber-toothed salmon.

Cathy McDonald, a geologist by training, regularly writes the Walkabout column for NWWeekend. She lives in Renton.

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