How Whale Fossils Ended Up In California’s Mountains

Paleontologists took over a construction site in the mountains of Scotts Valley, California because of an unexpected discovery – whale fossils. The well-preserved specimens have had a long journey to make it into the hills. They should also help illustrate an important era in whale evolution.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, workers discovered the 4-million-year-old fossils on September 4th in the Santa Cruz mountains near Scotts Valley, leading to a delay while paleontologists dig up the find.

So, how did whale fossils end up so far from the water (even in prehistoric times)?

The answer is tectonic stress and earthquakes. The bones have been slowly pushed upwards by tectonic pressure, which created the nearby mountains to begin with.

Paleontologist Scott Armstrong told the Santa Cruz Sentinel that in California, “most places where you see a hill, somewhere there’s a fault line nearby pushing it up.”

“They’re relatively inactive faults. But yeah, it’s from lifting thousands, maybe millions of years ago.”

Despite the slow-moving, rocky ride into the mountains, the fossils have remained largely intact. So far, the researchers have uncovered shoulder blades, vertebrae, “arm” bones, most of a skull, and a nearly complete jaw from a 25-foot-long ancestor of the baleen whale.

Still, the dig suffers from some difficulties. The bones are being encased in plaster and will be transported from the mountains to Monrovia in Southern California. Then, Paleo Solutions, the paleontology consultancy assigned to the discovery, will begin to separate the fossils from the surrounding stone.

That’s not an easy task, according to Armstrong.

“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, but we’ll get it.”

The discovery is still worth the trouble.

Santa Cruz-based Paleontologist Matthew Clapham explained that depending on how intact the bones are, they could say a lot about the sea mammals’ evolution.

“That’s an interesting time in whale evolution. 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.”

The specimen is a mysticete whale, the ancestor of modern baleen species.

Other dry locations in California have yielded some ancient sea animal fossils. Paleontologists have been studying Sharktooth Hill Bone Bed near Bakersfield, California since the 19th century. That site includes the whale fossils as well as the remains of ancient seals, sharks, and other fish, despite being past California’s coastal mountains.

[Image Credit: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images]