Prehistoric fossil found on Santa Cruz Island
Tue, Mar 10 2009 at 12:44 PM
What was originally thought to be a mammoth tusk turns out to be a significantly older find — a jawbone from a whale.
The Nature Conservancy's Dr. Lotus Vermeer, project director in Santa Cruz, Calif., says the jawbone is most likely from an extinct species of baleen whale, which could be 10 million to 20 million years older than scientists initially believed. Baleen whales have no teeth but rather filter their food through plates of baleen, which is made of keratin, the same substance that composes hair and nails. These whales are generally larger than their toothed cousins.
Discovered on the island in mid-January, the fossil and other nearby bones were originally thought to be from a pygmy mammoth, which would have roamed the island about 47,000 years ago. But a team of scientists delicately excavated the jawbone from sediments they speculated had been formed 10 million to 25 million years ago. The other bones include what may be a portion of a marine mammal skull, and they were buried deeper.
The jawbone was helicoptered to the mainland, where marine-mammal paleontologists will study it to determine its species and age.
Dr. Lawrence Barnes, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, considers the finding significant and valuable since little is known about the evolutionary history of the group of whales, and a fossil like the one found has potential to fill in gaps in scientists' knowledge about the whales.
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