Researcher gets big project: putting together sea lizard fossil

TURLOCK, Calif. — In a quiet campus laboratory, Susan Bowman brushes dirt and rock from bones 65 million years old. She's slowly putting together part of a giant sea lizard. But it's not a dinosaur.

"There are physiological differences between dinosaurs and aquatic lizards," said Bowman, a research intern for the Bureau of Land Management. "Kind of like humans and apes are 98 percent the same."

Bowman got the project after BLM natural resources specialist Ryan O'Dell discovered the fossils last summer in the Panoche Hills of western Fresno County.

"He was looking for something else and he stumbled on a vertebra," said Bowman, 33. And she, a 2008 California State University, Stanislaus, graduate in anthropology, archaeology and paleontology, was looking for work.

She got the internship in March, and worked with O'Dell and CSU, Stanislaus, paleontology Professor Julia Sankey to excavate a 400-pound hunk of rock. They encased the rock in plaster to remove it without damaging it, then built a little road by hand in the hills.Sankey said the site was a steep cliff face, made dangerous by falling rocks.

Archaeologists have periodically made fossil finds in the Panoche Hills, near Firebaugh, over the past 90 years. O'Dell described the area in a news release as "a long strip of purple, white and brown-colored badlands in rolling terrain of otherwise grassy foothills."

Since bringing the rock to the Turlock campus, Bowman's been taking the shale apart, identifying and cataloging bones. She thinks she's got her hands on part of a plesiosaur, an aquatic lizard that grew to as long as 60 feet, or about the size of a sperm whale.

More research needs to be done to identify the fossils with certainty; Bowman said she's hoping she has enough of the creature to make that happen. She's looking for shells and other remains to learn more about the environment at the time the lizard lived.

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