DAYVILLE - It was a paleontologist's dream day.
Last February, during a routine prospecting trip to find fossils exposed by erosion, Bureau of Land Management archeologist and paleontology coordinator John Zancanella found two segments jutting from rocky soil - teeth of a beaver very similar to those today.
Enter Dr. Josh Samuels, new on the job at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Samuels is chief paleontologist and curator of the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center.
In April 2010, the men gathered the teeth and surrounding fragments at the area on BLM land near Picture Gorge.
The find is the earliest known occurence of the genus in North America, the close relative to today's beaver. The genus is believed to have come to North America from Eurasia between 7 and 7.3 million years ago.
Samuels and Zancanella, who is based out of Portland, wrote a scientific article on their discovery. The article was published in the Sept. 1, 2011 Journal of Paleontology, and is expected to be posted soon on the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument website.
The attention comes at a time when beavers are of increasing interest in habitat and restoration studies.
"This is significant," said Samuels, "because the beaver is a really important animal today. The find helps us learn where it came from and when it showed up."
Called Castor californicus, the ancient animal "was pretty much indistinguishable from the beaver we see today," he said. While working previously at Hagerman Fossil Beds in Idaho, he studied discoveries of complete skeletons of the same genus, with their flat tails and webbed feet, though they dated more recently, between 3 and 4 million years old.
The teeth were found in the Rattlesnake Formation (layer of earth), which would've been alongside other much stranger animals, including forms of rhinoceros, horse, camels and mastadons, Samuels said.
"By what is now Dayville, 7 million years ago there would've been some strange animals, and something that looked like a beaver, its anatomy very similar to today's beaver, he said.
At the same time Zancanella found the beaver teeth, he found teeth of a second, extinct beaver called Dipoides stirtoni. Parts were also found of the shell of a pond turtle.
"Both of these (finds) point to an aquatic environment, stream or pond, at the site," noted Samuels.
The teeth will be exhibited in the visitor center's lobby, along with other recent finds and information highlighting some of the ongoing work of cooperative paleontological effort on area BLM, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service lands.
Its theme will be along the line of "There's still more to learn. There's always more to be done," said Samuels.
Even though people working since 1860s and 1870s theres still more to learn, he said.
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (National Park Service) and BLM cooperatively share the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center as a repository. The center is also the monuments visitor center, located between Dayville and Kimberly, on Hwy. 19, two miles north of its junction off of Hwy. 26.
Finds, Samuels said, come by looking, and being in the right place at the right time.
Discoveries continue to be made, he said, reinforcing his fascination and dedication to the profession.
I love spending time in the field, it really is the best part of my job, Samuels said. Everyday is different and we never know what we may find. It is reallyexciting to think that you are the first person to ever see a fossil, and new finds like these help inspire us to keep going.
Samuels expects the new exhibit will be ready for viewing this winter.