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The Oregon Trail, Part III: 20 Million Years BC

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It’s a long offseason. Since we’ve got a few months to work with, I’ve made the executive decision to do a chronological recap of Oregon’s story – the region, the state, the school - up to present day with a few detours along the way.

I know this is the content ATQers have been clamoring for.

Eventually we’ll reach actual sports and UO-related history. But to do this right we’ve got to lay a foundation, and that means starting at the beginning. So let’s take a trip to way way back in the day millions of years ago, when real men had brows like Volkswagens and Raquel Welch cavorted amongst the dinosaurs in a deerskin bikini. It’s science!

In truth, during the time of the dinosaurs in Oregon there was no “there” here – the land was a shallow sea off the coast of what would eventually become fBSU.

Gradually the Cascadia subduction zone built peaks that broke the water’s surface as volcanic islands – picture a light-blue tropical sea filled with coral & armor-plated proto salmon, and dotted with smoking desert isles, that’s about right.

Eventually the tectonics uplifted enough to form full mountain ranges (the Blue & Ochoco Mountains first & later the Casacades) and the High Desert of central & eastern Oregon.

Eruptions spewed out unimaginably huge magma flows that accumulated over the years & attained a thickness of over a mile in places – our state was in large part simply built by lava. We still see this columnar basalt all over Oregon today and don’t think too much on it, but when you stop & picture the sheer scale of these eruptions it’s pretty mind-boggling, apocalyptic even. One of the Earth’s largest lava accumulations, anywhere, any time, stretching hundreds of miles in every direction.

As this land rose & formed (we’re talking from around 40 million to 10 million years ago, give or take) in between catastrophic eruptions the climate patterns lent the area a subtropical feel.

Palm trees grew here in abundance, along with ancient bananas, kiwis, cinnamon, coffee trees, magnolias, cashews, and metasequoias (Oregon’s official state fossil).

A strange menagerie of creatures roamed primodial Oregon too, many of them preserved in places like the John Day Fossil Beds. Let’s do a quick primer on some of the noteworthy residents:

Mylagaulus – Basically a gopher. Since prehistoric animals were usually designed by 2nd graders, it’s got big claws and a pair of horns.

Mylagaulus, A Horned Gopher

Brontothere – He’s not fat he’s big-boned! Every ecosystem needs a tubby-yet-dangerous herbivore and the Brontothere filled that niche in ancient Oregon. These were rhino-shaped but larger than any living rhino (more approaching a modern African forest elephant, over 8’ tall and 16’ long), covered in thick armored hide, and sported a heavy Y-shaped horn on its snout.

Native American tribes who found their huge skeletons called them Thunder Horses, and told legends of them running across the clouds during storms.

Brontotheres

Merychippus – Miniature 3-toed horse with stubby legs, the original Li’l Sebastian.

Merychippus

Dinictus – Primitive cat, about cougar-sized but shorter & sleeker. Also known as the False Sabertooth due to its big-but-not-too-big fangs.

20 million years ago cats had not yet evolved digitigrade locomotion (walking on the toes), so Dinictus clomped around flat-footed & was not build for speed. It was probably an ambush predator and used its big ol’ teeth for puncturing craniums and/or prying apart vertebrae.

Dinictis pounces at a Protoceras.

Platybelodon – Goofy elephant with a big shovel mouth terminating in two gigantic lower buck-teeth. At first scientists thought it used the shovel to dredge huge mouthfuls of mud from the swamp. Now they think it grabbed branches with its trunk & used those teeth to scythe them off the tree, which gives it a few more dignity points. But still, check these guys out.

Platybelodons wallowing.

Kolponomos – sort of a marine otter-bear, possibly related to modern seals. Gnawed shellfish right off the rocks.

Pristichampus – A land-dwelling crocodile with long legs, probably capable of a full gallop when chasing prey.

No thanks.

Pristichampus brunching.

Entelodont – Known colloquially as the Hell Pig or Terminator Pig, he is the Oregon denizen you’d least like to meet in a dark alley. Basically a boar standing 7’ tall & weighing 1000lbs, with a huge head and powerful jaws filled with big nasty teeth, it was probably an apex predator (in addition to a supplemental diet of tubers). It was probably also quite fast. Many fossils of other species have been found with horrible Entelodont teeth marks gouged in them.

Another no thanks.

Hell Pig.

Next Up on the Oregon Trail: Catastrophic floods, that dank Willamette silt, native folk.

Potential Discussion Topics:

  1. Volcanoes are crazy, huh?
  2. Ever found a real live fossil?
  3. Even regular non-hell pigs can be kind of dangerous, any experiences with them (aside from eating)?