12-Million-Year-Old Fossil Found At Calif. School May Be New Sperm Whale Species
A rare whale fossil has been discovered hiding in plain sight on the grounds of a southern California private school. Encased in a boulder which is believed to have been on the grounds of the Chadwick School in Palos Verdes for 80 years, the fossil was just sitting there like any old rock until a seventh-grade science teacher noticed it was a bit different. The teacher, Martin Byhower, a former whale conservationist, had noticed other rocks on campus which he thought contained marine fossils.
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Byhower set about trying to find someone to come to the school to examine the boulder. He settled on Howell Thomas, the senior paleontological preparator for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. "After much time and research, I finally found the right person to examine the fossils in Mr. Thomas," said Byhower. "We are excited to have the Natural History Museum help us find out more about our fossils and share in our discovery."
Thomas visited the Chadwick School, first seeing rocks with fossilized ribs and vertebrae that possibly belonged to a sea lion or seal (nothing too special). But when he saw the boulder, he immediately knew it was an interesting find. "Within about four seconds, he looked at this one and said, 'Whoa, this is really special,'" said Byhower.
It will take a year to remove the fossil from the boulder, which is about two-and-a-half feet long and two feet wide. The base of a skull appears at one end of the boulder, with a lower jaw protruding from the other end. Thomas believes the skull belongs to a new sperm whale species.
"From my initial observation, the fossil appears to be that of a new species, perhaps even a new genus," said Thomas. "If this is a new species or genus it is definitely a publishable find."
The boulder comes from the Monterey Formation, a silica-rich rock layer set down some 12 to 20 million years ago during the Miocene epoch. A sedimentary rock type known as Palos Verdes stone, the boulder was likely brought to the grounds when the school was constructed 80 years ago. Byhower said that he'll teach students about the fossil discovery in order to encourage students to pay attention to the natural world. "People have walked by these fossils for decades and never even seen them," he said. "Others have seen them but never really wondered." And others have even "sat on this [boulder] a million times."
The boulder was removed from the Chadwick School by the Natural History Museum earlier this afternoon. Brad Graverson, a visual journalist at the Daily Breeze, documented the removal of the boulder, which you can watch here.
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