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Fossils found in Madera County Landfill | Bartell's Backroads

More than 15,000 Ice Age bones are on display at the Fossil Discovery Center

CHOWCHILLA, Calif. — Monsters are buried below the garbage at the Fairmead landfill in Madera County. For more than 780,000 years the creatures lay hidden until one of the beasts was accidentally unearthed by landfill workers in 1993.

“It was big news! It went across the world really and the world of paleontology recognized it as a big find,” said Michele Pecina. She runs the Fossil Discovery Center in Chowchilla, and the big find she's talking about is a Mammoth tusk from the Pleistocene era.

The Fossil Discovery Center is a learning center created by the San Joaquin Valley Paleontology Foundation, and not just one fossil was found at the landfill... more than 15,000 were unearthed.

“It continuously surprises us that more people don’t know about us,” said Pecina. “We have saber-tooth tigers, which is the California state fossil.”

Credit: ABC10 / KXTV
In 1993 workers at the Fairmead landfill in Madera County found a mammoth tusk while digging. Since the discovery more than 15,000 fossils have been unearthed.

Carnivores, herbivores, omnivores and all sorts of crazy Ice Age animals’ parts were plucked from the dump. Normally, a fossil find of this magnitude would close down or put an end to an industrial site, but that’s not the case at the Fairmead Landfill. Every time workers dig a pit to bury garbage, they practice what is called “salvage paleontology.”

“If workers are digging, and if a paleontologist determines there’s fossils, they quickly dig it up. Once the fossil is out, the workers go back to work,” said Pecina.

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Visitors to the Fossil Discovery Center can practice salvage paleontology for themselves. A mock dig site is set up and tools are made available to dig up real fossils from the Pleistocene era.

In the nearby displays, you'll find animals like dire wolves, saber-toothed tigers and giant sloths. If you’re wondering why so many fossils were found in this area, paleontologists believe the dump sits on what was an ancient lake.

“Predator and prey may have come to get a drink of water and died here,” said Pecina.

New fossils are discovered all the time at the Fairmead Landfill and that means new displays are regularly popping up at the museum, including the Mammoth Orange Stand -- a historic icon on Highway 99 that was saved and restored before it was sent to the landfill. It’s a popular roadside relic that many who travel the area will recognize. 

“We are on the look for a new hamburger vendor. So, if you know any, call us,” said Pecina.

The Fossil Discovery Center is open Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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