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Kids Really Dig Fossil Hunts

The Natural History Museum's 'Dr. Dave' leads outings to unearth prehistoric relics.

February 22, 2001|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So what if a 5-year-old can't say "paleontologist"? That doesn't mean the little tykecan't do the work of one.

Just ask David Whistler, a paleontologist with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. According to "Dr. Dave," as the kids know him, enthusiastic young charges actually make good fossil finders.

For proof, Whistler says that on fossil-hunting trips he leads into the California desert, not only do the "young eyes" often distinguish bones from rock better than their parents do, they are also more likely than adults to follow the rules.

"When they find something, I tell them they can't keep it but they can come back and visit [at the museum]. That seems to please most kids," Whistler says. "It's harder with adults. They want to take it home."

Several upcoming museum field trips and special family events will give adults the chance to learn from their children's deftness at dirt digging. When vertebrate fossils (bones) are recovered, they are numbered and stored in the museum collection, each with the name of the person who discovered it attached.

"These trips are more than just fun," Whistler says. "They're really participating in my research."

In all of the fossil-hunting excursions, the participants will learn how to spot fossils, how they got that way and how to collect them without destroying evidence of their history.

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The benefits of the field trips are twofold, says Whistler: They help fund research at the museum, and they help protect fossils by educating the public. They might even help create the next generation of paleontologists.

On Saturday morning and again on March 17, the Natural History Museum will lead a search for marine fossils (invertebrates) in Topanga Canyon. Led by former museum model-maker Joe Cocke, the Topanga trip will be the first time the museum has ventured into the canyon for fossils.

The site is packed with snails, clams and other shell fossils and has been used "by every college paleontology class in Southern California," Whistler says.

Because the fossils in Topanga Canyon, once covered by the sea, are invertebrates and are plentiful, they are not protected by federal or state laws, Whistler says. Bone fossils, or vertebrates, are protected and are collected only under the watchful eyes of museum staff.

Whistler will lead two fossil-hunting camping trips to Red Rock Canyon State Park in Kern County, on March 2 through 4 (food supplied) and March 9 through 11 (bring your own grub). Red Rock is a barren but beautiful high-desert area that's been a popular location for Hollywood ("Flash Gordon" was filmed there). It's also a gold mine for fossil hunters.

"If they don't find something in the first two hours, they aren't trying," Whistler says, noting that the Red Rock fossil beds are packed with accessible vertebrates because it has been uplifted by an earthquake fault.

Whistler won't be surprised, he says, if someone discovers a camel bone in Red Rock. In fact, the camel originated in North America, and its remains are the most commonly found in the 55-mile Red Rock fossil bed. Nor is it unusual to collect a leg or bone fragment from prehistoric horses, rhinos and elephant-like creatures called gomphotheres.

The Red Rock trip is $155 for adults and $125 for children (food included), $115 and $85 without food.

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What the museum offers through its trips, Whistler says, can't be compared to what kids can do on computers: "We work with the real thing."

The museum has other family-oriented trips and events planned for the weeks ahead.

On March 3, the museum will search for signs of marine life on a wildlife cruise and tide pool excursion in Dana Point. A 2 1/2-hour cruise (including whale watching and hands-on activities) will be followed by tide pool exploration. The outing coincides with the Dana Point Festival of Whales, so there are plenty of related activities going on as well. This excursion is recommended for ages 5 and up. The cost to nonmembers is $55.

Swimming skills are required for the Catalina Hike and Snorkel on March 31, a daylong excursion to Emerald Bay and Indian Rock. The ocean experience gives kids a chance to see underwater gardens and dissect a squid. Snorkeling gear and wetsuits are provided for kids, along with food and snacks (squid, we wonder?). The trip is geared to grades three and up, at $155 for nonmembers.

Another popular museum adventure--which never leaves the museum--is the family sleepover. The overnight Twilight in the Rainforest runs from 7 p.m. March 2 to 9 a.m. March 3. Live animals, jungle games and hands-on activities are planned for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade. The cost is $40 for nonmembers.

* For a schedule of other field trips and special events, call the museum for a calendar or check the Web site. Reservations are required for all field trips. Call (213) 763-3534. Natural History Museum, 900 Exposition Blvd. L.A. Field trip prices vary from $35 to $155. (213) 763-3535 or check the Web site at http://www.nhm.org.

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