Jul 302021

How whale fossils from the prehistoric Miocene era ended up in Palos Verdes

Raymond Spencer, head of Palos Verdes Rock Quarries, examines fossil remains of a 20-million-year old whale from the Miocene Era found in the Rolling Hills Estates area of the Palos Verdes Peninsula in June 1952. (Credit: USC Digital Library)
Raymond Spencer, head of Palos Verdes Rock Quarries, examines fossil remains of a 20-million-year old whale from the Miocene Era found in the Rolling Hills Estates area of the Palos Verdes Peninsula in June 1952. (Credit: USC Digital Library)

Peninsula certainly has yielded a rich store of paleontological data to scientists over the years. Prehistoric fossils, beginning with finds made nearly 100 years ago on the Peninsula, have played a big role in expanding knowledge of life during past geologic eras.

Why did so many of the actual fossil finds made on the hill turn out to be the remains of prehistoric marine life? The answer begins during the Miocene geologic era, which ranged roughly from 23 million to five million years ago.

For much of this period, the Peninsula and a good portion of the South Bay, along with other Southern California coastal areas, were beneath the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Seismic forces pushed up the area’s transverse mountain ranges, those stretching east to west instead of north and south. These include the Santa Monica, San Gabriel and Santa Ana mountains.

Sediment eroding from them gradually formed a large marine basin beneath the mountains. More recently, roughly two millions years ago, another seismic thrust formed the smaller Palos Verdes Peninsula hills. The island was separated from the mountain ranges north of it by the ocean.

The waters eventually receded, forming the greater Los Angeles basin, and reconnected the Peninsula hills on its landward side to what was now the mainland. Erosion formed canyons, which cut through the land terraces formed by the receding waters, to reveal the fossils of marine life creatures who once called the area home.

Development beginning in the 1920s brought more roads and people to the coastal area. The construction of Palos Verdes Drive West and South in the 1920s made the area accessible not only to its new residents, but also to sightseers using their automobiles for scenic weekend outings.

Geologists — both amateur and credentialed — began combing the beachside cliffs and interior hillsides and canyons. There, they found the kinds of fossils mentioned in that 1923 News Pilot article, many of which came from the base of the Palos Verdes hills in Torrance. Many more such discoveries were to come.

The fossils uncovered weren’t limited to sea life. A giant mastodon tusk was unearthed at the edge of the bluff, just northwest of Malaga Cove School, in April of 1927 by Dr. F.H. Racer of Lomita.

But marine fossils seemed the most prevalent.

A team of scientists from the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum spent weeks carefully recovering the head of a prehistoric baleen whale in the hills near Montemalaga Drive, in Rancho Palos Verdes, in the summer of 1956. The 50-foot-long whale’s skull alone measured five feet in width.

The whale skeleton, located at about the 1,000-foot elevation, was found to be typical of the Miocene Era and estimated to be 20 to 35 million years old.

Many different varieties of shark teeth have also been uncovered over the decades, inspiring fossil expert Joe Cocke, formerly of the county’s Natural History Museum, to write a guide to the various types.

More recently, Cocke has authored “Fossils of the Palos Verdes Hills” (Lamna Books, 2015), which concentrates on remains found on the Peninsula.

He was hiking and fossil hunting in Lunada Canyon in 2012 when he found a bone from an extinct bison species protruding from the bottom of a cliff face. It had cut marks on it indicating that humans had eaten the animal 13,500 years ago, putting it among the earliest indications of human life in California.

The discovery of an excellent sperm whale fossil specimen hiding in plain sight at Chadwick School caused a major stir among fossil enthusiasts in January 2014.

Many marine fossils embedded in rocks, most probably unearthed during the school’s construction in the 1930s, had been used to decorate the grounds of the campus.

After Chadwick science teacher Martin Byhower decided to call the Natural History Museum in 2013 to evaluate the various fossils, the rare sperm whale fossil was identified. The 700-pound Altamira shale boulder containing the artifact — anywhere from 12 million to 15 million years old — was transported to the museum for further study.

News of that find caused Gary Johnson, a resident in the 4600 block of Browndeer Lane, just down the hill from Chadwick in Rolling Hills Estates, to ask the museum experts to evaluate a boulder he and some friends had found in a nearby ravine in 1978.

The 1,000-pound rock, kept in his backyard for decades, turned out to contain a rare baleen whale fossil estimated to be 16 million years old. In August 2014, it was also transported to the natural history museum for further study.

Additional reading: Fossils of the Palos Verdes Hills, by Joe Cocke, Lamna Books, 2015.

Sources: Daily Breeze files; “Geology and Paleontology of Palos Verdes Hills, California,” by W.P. Woodring, M. N. Bramlette and W. S. W. Kew, Professional Paper 207, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946; Los Angeles Times files; Palos Verdes Peninsula News files; The Palos Verdes Story, by Delane Morgan, Review Publications, 1982.Time and the Terraced Land, by Augusta Fink, Western Tanager Press, 1987; “Using Paleogeographic Maps to Portray Phanerozoic Geologic and Paleotectonic History of Western North America,” by Ronald C. Blakey, Search and Discovery website, Article #30267 (2013)**, May 13, 2013.

Via dailybreeze.com

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