USA TODAY US Edition
California earthquakes reveal Miocene fossil
15-million-year-old find could be sea creature
Following July’s powerful California earthquakes, a utility crew on a private road made a remarkable find: a 600pound stone block encasing a fossil of a large torso that scientists believe probably dates back 15 million years.
The scientists think the July 4 earthquake – magnitude 6.4 – and the July 5 earthquake – magnitude 7.1 – in Kern County dislodged the 4-foot-long block from the Tapo Canyon area, causing it to roll down into the Simi Valley.
Russell Shapiro, professor of paleontology at CSU Chico, believes the fossil could be a small whale, the kind that swam in the Pacific Ocean when it covered the Simi Valley area and coastal Southern California millions of years ago.
But he’s not certain because the creature’s head hasn’t been found.
“I really want to go back and look for it,” Shapiro said with a laugh.
Thus, he said, the fossil could be a sea hippo, a species that also lived in the Pacific when the Simi Valley area was underneath it.
“We’re confident that this rock is of the Miocene age,” which ranges from 23 million years ago to 5.3 million years ago, he said.
“We think this particular one is probably about 15 million years old,” he said.
The utility crew spotted the 600pound block on the private road about two weeks after the earthquakes and contacted SWCA Environmental in Pasadena, a nationwide environmental consulting firm, Shapiro said.
The crew took photos of the block and sent them to the firm for which Shapiro does some work, he said. When the firm contacted Shapiro, he confirmed the block was worth protecting.
The photos showed a fairly complete torso, he said.
About a month after the fossil was discovered, a team of experts, including Shapiro, went to the site to take possession of the fossil and transport it to CSU Chico, a federally recognized institution for collecting fossils.
Shapiro said that significant fossils – in general, rare vertebrae fossils – are protected by federal and other laws. Such fossils on public lands cannot be collected or willfully destroyed, he said. But such fossils on private property belong to the property’s owner, he said.
In this case, the owner gave the team permission to take the 600-pound block encasing the fossil, he said, along with about a dozen smaller such blocks they had found there.
Back at a CSU Chico lab for fossil preparation, Shapiro and others are currently cleaning the fossils out of the rock so that “we can actually see all the material,” he said.
“We’re really excited to clean the rest of the blocks to see what else is there,” he said. “There may be pieces of skulls” that could help with identifying the fossil in the 600-pound block.
Shapiro said he is leaning toward it being a small whale because “the neck vertebrae are really, really collapsed on one another. And in most vertebraes, they’re not.” He said whales don’t need a neck under water.
“So the neck looks like a whale,” he said. “But the ribs don’t look like whale ribs. That’s where I’m stumped.”
That’s why he thinks it might be a sea hippo, known as a Desmostylidae.
Fossil to be part of exhibition
The Simi Valley torso fossil, and some of the others, are scheduled to be displayed at the Gateway Science Museum on the CSU Chico campus starting next summer, Shapiro said.
They will be part of an 18-month exhibition of California fossils, he said.
“The nice thing about this fossil is that it’s rock hard,” he said. “So if you ever want a fossil for kids to touch without damaging it, they can do it with this one.”
After the exhibition, the fossils will be stored at the university in an area for experts to study but off limits to the public, he said.
The fossil could be a sea hippo, a species that also lived in the Pacific when the Simi Valley area was underneath it.