More than three years ago, bulldozers making way for a new apartment complex in Laguna Hills unearthed a lava-layered trove of fossils.

The construction foreman was not sure what to make of the stony remains of prehistoric sea mammals, fish and birds. But work was stopped and an excavation team from the Natural History Foundation of Orange County was summoned.

After 18 months of digging and meticulously sifting through tons of dirt, the excavators found more than 150 fossils, including a skeleton that may belong to a newly discovered sea lion family. The fossils, many still encased in volcanic sediment, have been in storage at the foundation's museum in Newport Beach.

Thanks to a recent $17,000 grant from the apartment developers, the Newport Beach-based Meister Cos., the fossils are now being cleaned and catalogued for eventual display.

They probably won't be officially exhibited until spring, 1987, but the museum has invited the public to observe their preparation. Paleontologists and volunteers will do the detailed work in a visible area and answer questions from visitors, Audrey Moe, the foundation's president, said. (The fossils can be seen Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

"Watching this delicate job should give anyone interested an early opportunity to see them," she said. "We're very excited about the collection and eager to share it."

Foundation officials believe that the fossils will offer scientific insight into a time when much of Orange County was submerged and populated with ancestors of modern sharks, whales, walruses and other Pacific denizens.

The remains are from the Miocene period, about 9 to 11 million years ago, and represent one of the most sensational discoveries made on the West Coast, according to Rod Raschke, the foundation's supervising paleontologist.

"Besides finding a wonderfully diverse group of fossils showing the best of what can be found in this region, we've come across a sea lion-like animal that may be something very new," he pointed out.

The creature's head, with a strong set of long teeth, was similar to those of sea lions still found off the coast, but it also had a large, blubbery trunk like a walrus, Raschke explained.

Separate digs outside of Orange County have produced bone fragments that may belong to the family of sea lions, but the Laguna Hills excavation unearthed the first nearly complete skeleton, Raschke said. Other paleontologists have yet to confirm the foundation's discovery, he added.

The remaining fossils, which were dated by studying the five volcanic ash layers that held them, also will be examined by scientists, including specialists from the Los Angeles County and New York natural history museums, Moe said.

The fossils might never have been found, or might have been destroyed by the bulldozers, if it weren't for a law passed in 1977.

The county Board of Supervisors, realizing that the area possessed an underground bounty of ancient materials, began requiring developers to watch for fossils and artifacts during preliminary building stages, Raschke said.

"All of the county has potentially valuable sites, not only for fossils, but for Indian burial grounds as well," he said. "But the southern part, especially around the San Joaquin Hills and Saddleback Valley, is the richest."

Raschke added that he hopes the collection will help local residents better appreciate their surroundings. "The population is almost totally unaware of what is in their backyard," he lamented.

Moe compared the find to Los Angeles' discovery of the La Brea Tar Pits, which contained mammal bones dating back 50,000 years. But Orange County may offer more to scientists in the long run because area rock formations are older, almost 100 million years old, and may provide a wealth of fossils, she explained.

The Laguna Hills discovery, which is now called the Meister Collection in honor of the grant, was four or five miles from the ocean, near Alicia and Moulton parkways. The first remains were dug out in July, 1982, according to Christopher Call, Meister's executive vice president.

Despite repeated delays while excavation continued, the apartments were finally completed in 1984. Meister was prepared to accept the delays because it accepts the reasons behind the 1977 ordinance, Call said.

"There's no doubt that we (as developers) have to protect the legacy of the county," he said.

The foundation's nonprofit museum, at 2627 Vista del Oro St. in Newport Beach, features one of the three most extensive collections of marine mammal fossils in the country, Moe said.

Only the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington have more impressive collections, she added.

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