TURLOCK — 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.
Learning from the nibblers
"Like in any marine environment, when it died, these little guys came to feed off it," Bowman said, holding up a shell. "That can tell us a lot about it."
Working mostly alone — her 11-year-old son, Tyler, is her research assistant, but he returned to school this week — Bowman has assembled vertebrae, rib fragments and flanges, or flipper bones. She thinks about a third of the creature was encased in the rock.
"In the late Cretaceous period, California's coastline was 120 miles farther inland than today and the Coast Range was a string of islands," Bowman said. "The remains of sea-dwelling organisms were swept against the east side of the Coast Range, sank to the ocean floor, became buried by layers of sediment and were fossilized."
Similar creatures have been found as far away as Antarctica, she said; many of them are better preserved in colder climates.
"We have really poor preservation in California," she said. "The way our climate is, it's not really conducive to really good preservation."
Gypsum clings to the bones. "It's really pretty, but it gets in the way," Bowman said.
So she works slowly and carefully, with everything from sophisticated archaeology equipment to simple brushes and spoons, to unearth the bones and pieces, gluing together what's broken.
Bowman's internship with the Bureau of Land Management ends in October. But she's hoping to see it extended so she can continue working on the creature she jokingly refers to as "my boyfriend."
"I spend most of the day, every day, with him," she said.
She'd like to go back to the Panoche Hills and see about finding more of the lizard.
"I'd love to have some teeth," she said. "You can tell more about what they ate from their teeth."
No matter what, she wants to continue working in archaeology and paleontology.
As for the lizard, it's going into a collection at the University of California at Berkeley, where it will be used for research.
In the meantime, Bowman will get as much of the creature together as she can.
"This is so much fun," she said. "I'm like a kid in a candy store. I love digging in the dirt."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2343.