Workers find whale fossils near mountains of a housing development in Scotts Valley, a residential community in California’s Santa Cruz. The fossils are approximately four million years old, and appear to be of an ancient whale, according to UPI.
Because whale scientists expected the site to have potential archaeological significance, a monitor was assigned to look out for discoveries. Expectations were rewarded on Sept. 4 when paleontologist Scott Armstrong, a scientist with Paleo Solutions, an archeological consulting service, found a relatively intact fossil in the mountains, estimated to be about 25 feet long.
“On some project sites, if a rock unit is known to have a high potential to produce it, then it’s typically outlined in the planning process and environmental impact report,” said Armstrong.
The whale fossils in the mountains belong to an ancient ancestor of the baleen whale, known as a mysticete whale, according to Armstrong. Last week, a team of excavators carefully unearthed parts of the skull, a large portion of the jaw, vertebrae, shoulder blades, and arm bones.
When asked how the remains of a 25-foot whale fossil could have become lodged in rock in the Santa Cruz mountains, Armstrong said it likely arrived there through the shifting of tectonic plates and massive earthquakes.
“Most places where you see a hill, somewhere there’s a fault line nearby pushing it up,” he said. “They’re relatively inactive faults. But yeah, it’s from lifting thousands, maybe millions of years ago.”
To preserve the fossilized bones and make them safer for transport, the scientists have encased them in plaster. Once they reach Monrovia, California, where Paleo Solutions’ office is located, the team will work to separate the fossil from the rock that has entombed it for thousand, if not millions, of years.
“If the bone is softer than the rock, it makes it very difficult because it’s hard to chip through the rock without breaking the softer bones,” Armstrong told the Sentinel, “but we’ll get it.”
People often find ancient shark teeth and other marine fossils in Scotts Valley, said Matthew Clapham, a paleontologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said. But, he noted, this discovery is special.
“I think of the fossils you get along the coastline, it’s more common to get a piece of the skull or the brain case or some bones,” Clapham said. “So this sounds like it’s a very impressive find.”
Finding a large whale vertebrae could shed new light on early whale evolution.
“That’s an interesting time in whale evolution,” says Clapham. “A lot of whales were starting to evolve from their early ancestral group so this specimen, depending on how complete it is, could say a lot of interesting things about the evolution of whales.”
Today, baleen whales are the largest animals on Earth. They strain sea water using their characteristic strong and flexible baleen plates to capture tiny krill, zooplankton, crustaceans, and small fish.
“Toothed” baleen whales swam the oceans some 20 to 30 million years ago, but these died out so that only filter-feeders remained.