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Secrets of Past Here for the Digging : County Is One of World’s Richest Hunting Grounds for Fossils

Times Staff Writer

Every now and then, the remains of a great whale or a bison or a sea lion that died millions of years ago are uncovered at some Orange County development site, and for a while the publicity once again stirs the public’s imagination.

“What was life really like right here 10 (million) or 15 million years ago?” said Audrey Moe, president of the Natural History Foundation of Orange County. “What did those creatures eat, what did they smell, what did they hear or what kind of noises did they make?”

Above all, what effect could their existence possibly have had on us?

Many of the answers probably are locked in the hundreds of thousands of specimens of fossilized marine vertebrates, shellfish and some land animals that make Orange County one of the world’s richest hunting grounds for paleontologists, archaeologists and other scientists.

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The richness of this lode of knowledge of past eons is illustrated in a series of events that bordered on the tragicomic.

Thirty years ago--not even one-millionth of a grain of sand in the universe’s hourglass--work was under way on the Santa Ana and Riverside freeways. Between 1956 and 1973, state highway workers scooped 11 million cubic yards of what they thought was just sand and gravel from a so-called borrow pit in Buena Park.

By mere chance, a group of geology students visited the borrow pit one day toward the end of that excavation and discovered unusually rich fossil deposits.

Since then, 4,000 specimen remains of extinct horses, camels and mammoths dating back 15,000 years, plus even older fossils of whales and sharks, have been unearthed at that pit and sent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. That, of course, was before Orange County’s own Natural History Foundation opened its center in 1974.

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The borrow pit, nickname for a site where materials like gravel are excavated, now is Los Coyotes Regional Park, and a half-million-dollar exhibition building with laboratories and public display rooms is nearing completion to house its specimens.

The sadly late discovery in Buena Park helped bring about passage of an ordinance by the county Board of Supervisors in 1977 requiring developers to have a paleontologist or archaeologist observe grading operations on any site that might have fossil relics.

Another event also spurred the supervisors’ action.

In 1974, Carol J. Stadum, a geology instructor at Huntington Beach High School, startled the board when she appeared before it with a slide projector and the skull of a saber-toothed cat.

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She was calling attention to the presence of what became known as the Pecten Reef, a spectacular six-mile-long deposit of fossils of tropical marine and terrestrial life from 15 million years ago. At the time, the board was considering permits for a housing tract on part of the reef.

The reef, two miles wide in some places and about 600 feet thick, stretches from Lake Forest into Wood Canyon in Laguna Hills, crossing the Santa Ana Freeway and Moulton Parkway near Alicia Parkway.

Fifteen million years ago it was part of a large area that was covered by warm ocean waters.

Stadum, now a member of the National History Foundation, told the supervisors that Orange County “has to be the only place in the world” where fossils “fall out on the road and are a traffic hazard,” and she described the bones of hippopotamuses, crocodiles, horses, whales, dolphins and other creatures that still litter the reef.

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She explained also that by 7 million years ago, the land began to rise and turned into a swamp and, finally, as the Santa Ana Mountains thrust up, turned into dry land.

The transition from an ocean to a terrestrial environment accounts for the varied fossil specimens and provides an invaluable record of life spanning many years. The reef takes its name from the numerous fossils of pecten shells shaped like the Shell Oil Co. logo.

With the Los Coyotes Park, the Pecten Reef and numerous other development projects as examples of what uncontrolled grading could do to irreplaceable relics of the earth’s history, supervisors passed the law to help protect them.

“As far as we know, it’s the only county ordinance of its kind in the country,” said Rod Raschke, of RMW Paleo Associates and staff paleontologist for the Natural History Foundation of Orange County. San Diego and Riverside counties, he said, are considering similar measures.

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“If it wasn’t for the guidelines laid down in that ordinance, we (the scientific community) would be helpless in the face of all the development and grading that is going on,” he said.

Until recently, almost everything of interest that was found in Orange County was turned over to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

About 300,000 Specimens

“On a worldwide basis, Orange County is very important in studies of ancient history,” said Lawrence G. Barnes, curator of vertebrate paleontology. “We have about 300,000 specimens here from Orange County, ranging from sharks’ teeth to whales.”

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In Los Angeles County, he said, once a good supplier of artifacts, “it’s now harder to get at the resources because everything is mostly built up, and now Orange County is building, too.”

Barnes, one of the world’s leading scientists in his field, said he “wrote up these circumstances in 1977, and much of what I wrote is in the ordinance that requires monitoring” in Orange County, where “we’ve just scratched the surface.” If, he said, the fossils here aren’t recovered now, “they’ll be lost forever under concrete.”

Before the ordinance was adopted, tract developers who uncovered fossils, mostly in the southern part of the county, often were reluctant to report their finds for fear that scientists would cause costly delays while the tedious, painstaking work of removing the specimens went on.

Even so, according to Raschke and the Natural History Foundation’s Moe, of most of them were cooperative.

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Pecten Reef Fossils

For example, after the remains of two whales, a 12-million-year-old dolphin and other fossils were discovered along the Pecten Reef in the Laguna Hills area, the developer, AFCOM (Affordable Communities), set aside a one-acre park on Via Lomas where rocky portions of the reef are clearly visible, showing fossil imprints of shell fish, tube worms and other small creatures.

Mission Viejo Co., on whose vast south county acreage hundreds of specimens have been recovered, has “always been most helpful,” Moe said.

Jo Schetter, spokeswoman for the company whose holdings reach into some areas of the Pecten Reef, said certified paleontologists or archaeologists always have been present at grading sites, even before the county ordinance. She said the company has dedicated 3,400 acres of Laguna Hills property to the county, including some in Wood Canyon where the reef extends, and that access to that land for exploratory work will be governed by the county.

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The Irvine Co., with its widespread lands, traditionally has allowed qualified people to search for ancient artifacts. Six years before the ordinance was passed, when two young men discovered whale and bison fossils on the bluffs above the east side of Newport Bay in 1971, the company and the developer, William Holstein Co., did not hesitate to allow further explorations.

More recently, when the remains of a 30-foot whale and those of a much smaller mammal--possibly the calf of the larger one--were turned up by grading machines at a Laguna Niguel site, the developer, H. R. Remington Properties Inc., cooperated in the recovery program and paid the cost of transporting the specimens to a county warehouse used for temporary storage by the county Natural History Foundation.

To Display Whale

Moe said a drive is starting to raise $60,000 for the preparation of the 6-million-year-old baby whale for public display.

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The remains of the mother and baby whales originally were marked for shipment to the Los Angeles museum, but Peter Herman, chief aide to Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, said there “was no way they’d go somewhere else, when our own foundation needs all the artifacts it can get.”

Meanwhile, Moe said the foundation, now housed in a 5,000-square-foot building at 2627 Vista del Oro in Newport Beach, is seeking a larger site.

“We have, after all, one of the world’s three largest collections of marine vertebrate fossils,” she said. The other two are the Smithsonian Institution and the Los Angeles museum.

Although the vast majority of specimens are wrapped in burlap and plaster and stored at the county warehouse in Santa Ana, the foundation center has room for displays ranging from 40-year-old cow and pelican bones, which children can handle, to the 12-million-year-old dolphin now being readied for public showing.

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All exhibits are color coded and easy to follow, and on certain days, workers can be observed in the laboratory as they carefully brush and chip the rock and dirt from valuable specimens.

Theories of Movement

Some of the questions that the discoveries pose already have been partially answered, Raschke said.

The fact that the Pecten Reef contains fossils of animals known to be from tropical zones indicates that this part of California may have had a much warmer climate 12 million or 15 million years ago, Raschke said. Or, as one theory holds, California is moving slowly northward along the San Andreas Fault; thus, 15 million years ago, it could have been near where the Panama Canal Zone is today.

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“Also, in studying the past, paleontologists can get an idea of why so many species have become extinct, and modern analogies may be drawn from that,” he said.

But correlating all the information from the bits and pieces of fossil material is a slow process.

As one scientist pointed out, specimens taken from La Brea Tar Pits in 1915 still are being cleaned and assembled for study.


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