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Fossil or Faux? Let Experts Study Your Oddest Objects

April 22, 1999|BRENDA REES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ever wonder if that odd-shaped stone you've kept in a cigar box ever since you were a kid could be something more than just a childhood keepsake? Or how about that brightly colored shell you found on the beach last year? Maybe it's not just a pretty ornament. Or what about that strange bone your dog dug up in the backyard? Could that possibly be from a Tyrannosaurus rex?

Well, wonder no more.

Paleontologists, mineralogists, geologists and biologists from the Page and Natural History museums will be available Saturday on Discovery Day to examine, identify and talk with members of the public about their own private collection of natural treasures. Think of the event as the scientific version of the popular PBS television program "The Antiques Road Show"--only with a much older slant: about 40,000 years older.

Instead of bringing in family heirlooms, visitors to the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits in Hancock Park are asked to bring in any bone, rock, shell, fossil or crystal they wish to know more about. But unlike the TV show, no appraisals will be given--just identification along with a little natural history lesson and some fossil- or gem-hunting tips.

"Part of the fun of this day is that people will get a chance to talk to a real expert about their own discoveries," said John Harris, chief curator of paleontology at the Page Museum. "We will tell them what it is, how old it is, what it did, and if indeed it is a rare mineral or just a chunk of green glass from a broken 7-Up bottle."

Harris said he expects to inspect a wide range of materials on Discovery Day, from the ordinary to the extraordinary. "Many people bring us items they have found either here in Southern California or when they were on vacation," he said, adding that someone once brought him teeth from a hippopotamus--an animal that isn't even indigenous to North America.

While most people bring in objects that are fairly common and run-of-the-mill, there have been some items that have raised a paleontologist's eyebrows and heartbeat. "Once, we had a fossil whale skull brought to us in a wheelbarrow and a 6-foot woolly mammoth tusk that barely fit in the back of a Suburban," Harris said. "Those were nice surprises for us."

The whale skull was found sticking out of the eroding cliffs of Palos Verdes, said Harris, who explained that during the reign of dinosaurs, much of the Southern California basin was under water. "That's why we don't find dinosaur fossils here," he said.

Aquatic fossils and shells are the more common older fossils found in the Los Angeles area, with more "contemporary" fossils being those of mastodons, mammoths, horses, camels, ground sloths, saber-toothed cats and dire wolves.

"We let people who are interested in pursuing fossils know the limitations of where you can look and retrieve materials," Harris said. "It is against the law to take something from national or state parks, as it is from private property."

Regardless of the find's uniqueness, every item brought in on Discovery Day will receive a signed certificate that will date and officially identify the object.

*

Discovery Day began in 1982 but has not been held consistently. In fact, this year marks a revival of Discovery Day that has taken place at both the Page and Natural History museums. In addition to tables set up for scientific evaluations, many other new activities and exhibits will be available for visitors.

A relatively new exhibit will give people a close-up view of how a paleontologist sorts micro-fossils invisible to the naked eye.

A powerful video camera will be set up in a lab with a monitor outside for public viewing. On the screen will be what looks like a bunch of boulders. "Actually, the camera is looking at pebbles," said Curt Abdouch, an administrator at the Page Museum who has helped coordinate Discovery Day activities. "People will be able to see how scientists, using small paintbrushes, sort and sift out tiny shells, teeth and bone fragments."

In addition to the traditional mask-making for kids, a new exhibit will challenge young and old alike, Abdouch said. "We have casted a complete replicated skeleton from a saber-toothed cat, and we are encouraging guests to attempt to put it all together," he said. "It's like an ultimate puzzle."

Priceless fossils from the Page Museum's paleontology vaults, which are normally not on public display, will also be available for viewing on Discovery Day, Abdouch said.

And finally, the museum will have something for those interested in art inspired by prehistoric geology. Richard Wheeler, a regular summer excavator at the La Brea Tar Pits, became fascinated with the swirling and deep, colorful images of the liquid asphalt while working on site last year. A photographer, Wheeler decided to capture images of these glistening, bubbling formations, and now his photographs are on display.

"What he's done is a wonderful blending of science and art, and that's what we want Discovery Day to be all about," Abdouch said.

BE THERE

Discovery Day at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Participation in all Discovery Day activities is free with admission to the museum: $6 for adults, $2 for children 5-12, and $3.50 for students and seniors. Children under 5 are free. The museum is located at 5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For general museum information, call (323) 934-PAGE or visit the museum's Web site at http://www.tarpits.org.

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