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4-Million-Year-Old Fossil Of Baleen Whale’s Ancestor Could Shed Light On Evolution Of Whales

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A four-million-year-old fossilized remains of a whale was discovered and dug at a construction site in Santa Cruz County in California and could potentially offer scientists additional insights on the evolution of whales.

The remnants of the ancient mammal, which was discovered on Sept. 4 by a paleontologist who was tasked to monitor a housing development site in Scotts Valley, was found to be relatively intact.

Scott Armstrong, a paleontologist with Paleo Solutions, which provides archaeological and paleontological consulting services, said that the fossil belongs to a mysticete whale, an ancestor of the baleen whale.

Also known as whale bone whales, baleen whales do not have teeth. Instead, they are characterized by baleen plates that they use to filter food from the water.

The blue whale, which is known as the largest animal that exists today, is an example of a baleen whale. Despite their size, these cetaceans feed on the smallest organisms in the ocean.

Armstrong said that the bones, which included pieces of the skulls, shoulder blades, arm bones, jaw and vertebrae, made their way into the hills with the shifting of the tectonic plates such as when earthquakes occur.

Two paleontologists and an archaeologist set out to excavate the fossil using shovels, hoes, brooms and smaller tools gradually unearthing the ancient remains, which measures about 25 feet in length.

Matthew Clapham, a paleontologist from the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that the find is rare given how intact the marine animal's bones are.

He said that the discovery is impressive since it is more common to get the brain case, or the skull or some bones with fossils that are found along the coastline.

After unearthing the remains, scientists encased the bones in plaster to preserve its integrity. It will also make transport easier given that the remains will be transported to the Paleo Solutions' Monrovia offices, where scientists will separate the fossil from the rock and conduct further research.

Clapham said that a large vertebra whale, such as the newly discovered specimen, could shed light on the evolution of whales.

"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," Clapham said.

Photo: Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith | Flickr

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