A Big Piece of Prehistoric Puzzle : Well-Preserved Fossil of Whale Offers Clues to County's Prehistory

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 24 days in May and June, a team of scientists and technicians were sequestered on a barren hillside here, painstakingly peeling apart the hard-packed soil, sometimes sleeping in tents or under the stars and eating campfire-cooked food.

Their singular mission: Unearth a remarkable 24-foot whale skeleton they named Joaquin and glimpse into the 9-million-year-old Joaquin's world.

When Joaquin lived, most of the land stretching from Santa Monica to Camp Pendleton was under water, paleontologists say. Water lapped up on the sandy shores of the Santa Ana and San Gabriel mountains. Palos Verdes was an island, and early descendants of camels, rhinos and elephants roamed a much warmer, wetter countryside.

Joaquin, now on display at Ralph B. Clark Regional Park in Buena Park, represents another important piece of the vast mosaic of prehistoric life that paleontologists are attempting to construct, said Lawrence G. Barnes, head of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

"People always ask why we collect these things," said Barnes, who has made a career of studying the fossils of Southern California. "I answer that fossils are inherently worth saving. As paleontologists, we are reconstructing the history of life on earth."

Joaquin's burial ground lies amid what geologists call the Capistrano Formation, a fossil-rich stretch of rock and silt stone that accumulated over 5 million years, from 4.5 million to 9 million years ago. Thousands of bits of sharks, birds and fish have been found on the one hillside since April, as well as eight sea lion specimens and 13 whales.

But whales, because they are mammals with large, complex brains that lived on land before choosing to move into the sea, add intriguing pieces to life's puzzle that humans can easily relate to, Barnes said.

"They have most of the same bones we have," Barnes said. "They have fingers and toes, kneecaps, elbows and wrists. Early whales had noses at the front of their snouts."

Joaquin represents one of the most complete examples of an ancient whale ever found, one that was covered--and preserved--by layers of silt that accumulated over all those millions of years, said John A. Minch, who with fellow Saddleback College Prof. Thomas A. Leslie, lead the team that found and unearthed Joaquin.

"Joaquin is so complete, it's like an undertaker laid him out there for us," Minch said, adding that his team calls Joaquin a male although they don't know the whale's sex.

Actually, little is known about Joaquin. At first he was thought to be a fin whale, but "he's no more a fin whale than you or I are," Barnes said. "We have no idea what he is. Joaquin definitely belongs to the family they call rorquals, which are baleen whales that live in the open ocean and are filter feeders."

Joaquin was discovered April 1 as part of a study by paleontologists along the entire 17-mile right of way for the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor before final grading begins. Between Alicia Parkway and Interstate 5 alone, a distance of about three miles, paleontologists found 17 significant fossil sites, further testament to the vast fossil deposits in the South County soil.

The ancient animals that died were preserved because they were buried quickly, said Rod Raschke, a paleontologist from Huntington Beach.

"Pretty much wherever you dig in Orange County you find fossils," Raschke said. "The environment is right for the preservation of fossils. With a lot of sediment coming in from the adjacent land mass, the animals would die, get buried in muck and stay buried."

Judging by his skeleton, paleontologists believe Joaquin died a quiet, natural death. Its body cavity probably bloated full of gases after death, and it eventually sank to the bottom on its back and then rolled over partially on its side, just as it was found about 9 million years later, Minch said.

Over time, the land where Joaquin was buried was slowly pushed up by the fault activity in the area. After 9 million years, the uplift from the faults can be dramatic, Minch said.

"People have a problem imagining the uplifting of land," Minch said. "I usually use the example of the Cajon Pass, which is rising 19 inches every 100 years, or 1.6 feet. In 1 million years, that's 16,000 feet."

About 120 feet of sediment covered Joaquin for those millions of years. Several years before the fossil was found, a developer cut into the hillside and exposed the vast array of fossils. At first, the team figured Joaquin was just another of many fossil fragments.

"We were all shocked when we found how extensive Joaquin was," said Leslie, the project manager of the dig. "It's like finding a rock and later on discovering it is a diamond. We knew it was pretty but we didn't know at that time what it was worth."

Getting Joaquin from the ground involved "inventing new technologies and methodologies," Leslie said. Unlike most fossils that are put in a plaster cast and taken to a warehouse for years of storage, Joaquin had a display area at Clark Park awaiting him.

"We actually curated Joaquin in the field. We built a platform around Joaquin so he could be moved and put immediately on display," Leslie said.

The first step was to dig around Joaquin with a backhoe, being careful not to damage or collapse any part of the skeleton. Then they cut the whale into three pieces: its head; the ribs and chest through the lower back; and the caudal or tail vertebrae.

Next, the team constructed what amounted to a patio beneath Joaquin. A company was hired to drill horizontal holes underneath Joaquin, where 4-by-4 pieces of lumber were installed for planks to be bolted on top.

Then, with strips of wood placed around Joaquin like a picture frame, plaster was poured inside, completely embedding him. Finally, holes were drilled on the side of the frame and eye bolts were inserted, so each piece could be lifted by crane and placed on a flatbed truck.

The three pieces, each weighing about two tons, wound up being lifted out of the ground and placed on the truck for shipment to the park.

The effort was certainly worth the work, Raschke said. For paleontologists, a skeleton as complete as Joaquin answers many questions other fossil bits and pieces can never do.

"Skeletons are the Rosetta stones that we need to clear up a lot of misconceptions," Raschke said. "We can see how this rib bone goes with this arm bone that goes with this jaw."

Thousands more skeletons like Joaquin are needed for paleontologists to do their job, he added.

"You need more than one of a species to make sure you see what you are seeing," Raschke said. "For instance, if someone some day dug up the skeleton of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, it would give a much different picture of what humans were like in the 20th Century."

The Whale of Laguna Niguel

Recent roadwork for the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor uncovered a 9-million-year-old, 26-foot baleen whale skeleton. It made paleontological history by being unearthed and put on display in only six weeks. The fossil is more complete than the blue whale specimen on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

* The Skeleton: Up Close and Belly Up

* 1. Vertebrae 2. Ribs 3. Flipper 4. Skull 5. Jaw

* * Why it's belly up: When it died, digestive gases caused whale to flip over; it sank belly up to the ocean floor, where paleontologists found it in May. * Excavation process: Skeleton was found embedded in rock. Paleontologists cut it in thirds, supported it with boards and plaster, and removed it from the dirt. Was hoisted onto flatbed truck and ferried to museum. * Where to see it: Ralph B. Clark Regional Park, Buena Park; Open Tuesdays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; weekends and some holidays: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed Mondays, Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. (714) 670-8045.

* Orange County: 9 Million Years Ago

Mammals that died in Miocene Epoch channels remained virtually undisturbed because of a lack of strong ocean currents.

* Laguna Niguel: An island Whale died in channel Saddleback Mountains Present shoreline

* Mammals on Land

Prehistoric south Orange County was both lush and arid, much like it is today. Among the mammals that roamed:

Synthetoceras: Hoofed herbivores the size of small deer, featuring three horns. Horns indicate sparring behavior.

* Primitive saber-toothed tiger: About the size of a German shepherd; coloring like a lion's; two long, curved upper canine teeth. Preyed on three-toed horses, other small mammals and birds.

* Three-toed horse: All horse lineages, living and extinct, evolved from this animal. Strong cheek teeth and high crowns allowed grazing in the arid prairie grasslands.

* Mammals of the Sea

Sea cows and manatees were South County's only grazing marine mammals. The ocean was filledwith great white sharks, dolphins, porpoises and a variety of whales.

* Paleoparadoxia: Pony-sized, possibly evolved from elephants. Moved on land like a sea lion but waded in water like a hippopotamus. Fed on sea grasses and mollusks.

* Stellar's sea cow: As long as 26 feet, weighing six tons. Used front legs to maneuver on shore and large tail for swimming. Only mammal to feed exclusively on seaweed.

* Baleen whale: Medium-sized whale of same species as present-day humpback. Ate plankton, krill or small fish, which were caught in the throat then pushed through filters (called baleen) by a plunger-like tongue.

* Orange County Over Time 4.5 million years ago Precambrian Time: Earth's origin * 290 million to 570 million years ago Palaeozoic Era Cambrian Ordovician Silurian Devonian Carboniferous Permian * 64 million to 289 million years ago Mesozoic Era Triassic Jurassic Cretaceous * 10,000 to 63 million years ago Cenozoic Era Palaeocene Eocene Oligocene Miocene Pliocene Pleistocene Holocene

* Sources: Ralph B. Clark Regional Park; "Mammal Evolution," by R. Savage and M.R. Long; Natural History Foundation of Orange County; World Book Encyclopedia; Researched by APRIL JACKSON/ Los Angeles Times

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