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Ancient Whale Fossils Recorded in Orange County

OC Parks' John D. Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center Reports Findings

Feb. 27, 2013

fossilized whale teeth

A recently unearthed fossil from one of four whale species dating back 17 to 19 million years ago.

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Earlier this month, Cal State Fullerton paleontologist Meredith Rivin of the John D. Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center, presented findings focusing on the recently unearthed fossils of four new whale species dating back 17 to 19 million years ago. The find, announced at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, calls into question the prevailing scientific consensus that this group of whales had become extinct five million years earlier.

"I didn't actually start to study the bones in depth until 2008," said Rivin. "The bones had been unearthed during a highway construction project. In fact, there were hundreds of fossilized sea creatures embedded in the rock. Once I started focusing on the large whale bones, I realized that we were looking at four new species of ancient whales."

Riven discuss her research on this video.

Rivin worked with other experts and the evidence is conclusive. There were, in fact, four species of toothed baleen whales. One specimen, nicknamed Willy by the field paleontologists, became the primary focus of her research. Rivin estimates that Willy was about 30 feet long. While attending the AAAS conference with other paleontologists and marine biologists on "The Evolution of Giants: The Great Whales," she discussed her research.

"To have the opportunity to discover and research a whole new species is extraordinary," said Rivin, who used the research as the subject of her 2010 master's thesis at Cal State Fullerton. "And it's a very humbling experience."

The whale species Rivin studied (who have yet to be named) are not direct ancestors of today's whales but are related to modern baleen whales' ancestors.

Baleen whales are "filter feeders," meaning that they eat by ingesting large amounts of water and krill. They don't use their teeth when feeding. Instead, their baleen, which resembles bristles, allows the whale to push the water out, while the krill that they do eat, remains. The baleen, in effect, serves as a strainer to keep food in.

So what do these ancient creatures who roamed the oceans millions of years ago have to tell us today?

"We are able to see how the whales evolved over millions of years, often during times of great climate change," said Rivin. "Giant whales may have evolved to baleen to take advantage of ocean upwellings when dense patches of small prey are brought up to the surface of the water. Another branch became what are now dolphins, porpoises and killer whales. These mammals, that are smaller, kept their teeth and developed echolocation (a type of biological sonar where animals emit sounds and listen for the echo) while giant whales evolved into filter feeders.

"We also see that very diverse groups of mammals co-existed, and whales like Willy show us the links between the two groups — toothed and filter feeders," she continued. "We also know that far from being extinct during that five-million-year gap, it appears that these whales were doing fairly well," she continued. "If you see the wear on Willy's teeth, it was clear that he was a successful hunter. These are large, functional teeth. Discoveries like this demonstrate that we still have a lot to learn."

Among the scientific journals trumpeting the findings of Orange County's John D. Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center were The Scientist, National Geographic and Discover . The Cooper Center was established as a partnership between Orange County Parks and Cal State Fullerton. OC Parks owns and houses the fossils, while Cal State Fullerton provides stewardship and scientific expertise. Other collaborators include the California Department of Transportation, who funded the excavation; LSA Associates, Inc., who performed the excavation; and Lawrence G. Barnes at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who is Rivin's coauthor on the upcoming paper.

Exhibit at Dana Point Festival of the Whales

To learn more about the John D. Cooper Center, archaeologists, paleontologists and volunteers will be participating in the Dana Point Festival of the Whales event Sunday, March 3. The center will display fossils and artifacts, as well as sponsor activities to engage children and the community in learning more about Orange County's ancient history. For more information, visit the Festival of Whales website

By: Valerie Orleans, 657-278-4540

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