Lake Casitas Angler Landed Whale of a Find
Aaron Plunkett went out for a January day of angling at Lake Casitas, and though it wasn’t a particularly good day for fish, the Ojai resident came home with a monumental catch: a 25-million-year-old whale.
It was a find--a few pieces of fossilized bones--that has the experts excited. They’re convinced that what Plunkett stumbled over is a first of its kind in California: a toothed baleen whale, representing a rare evolutionary link between whales as we know them, with their brushy, plankton-catching plates, and their ancient, toothy ancestors.
“He has in fact found a very important specimen,” said Larry Barnes, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.
What Plunkett found is a whale dating from the earliest part of the Miocene Epoch, and one of the last of the toothed baleens to survive past the Oligocene Epoch. It’s a fossil that until now has mostly only been seen in such areas as the Pacific Northwest, Baja California and Japan.
For now, no one is exactly advertising the precise location of the bones at Lake Casitas, where they have remained in the same place since the whale died and was covered in ancient ocean sediment back when Ojai was under water.
Plunkett couldn’t be reached Thursday, and by all accounts is very protective of his fossil find. In a short, written statement, the self-professed musical anthropologist said he hoped to create an ambitious Ojai learning center to house the skeletal remains and offer “instruction, public performances, history through storytelling, promotion of anthropological art forms and the like.”
“I feel it appropriate for the whale to remain in the Ojai Valley,” Plunkett said in the statement.
That’s not likely to happen, said Howell Thomas, a paleontologist with the natural history museum. Thomas said he is hoping to dig up the entire skeleton later, once the museum is able to draw up a budget for digging and cleaning. If anything, the museum will provide a replica to Plunkett for his wished-for interpretive museum.
Doug Ralph, director of the Lake Casitas Recreation Area, was willing to give some publicity to the find. But Ralph said he would like the excavation to occur quickly for fear scavengers might come back to search for the remaining 25 to 30 feet of whale body buried next to the lake. Legally, the recreation area owns the bones, but Ralph said he’ll leave the excavation up to the natural history museum.
“We’re looking at this as something out of the realm of what we can do, and [in the realm of] what the L.A. museum can do,” he said.
But the marketing opportunities aren’t lost on him.
“Now, we can claim Casitas has a whale of a fish,” Ralph said.
Plunkett stumbled across the bones Jan. 19. Sensing they were important, he brought them to the attention of Thomas, who specializes in marine mammals. Thomas brought back parts of the skull, a tooth and some vertebrae to the museum.
Thomas said he and his crew also discovered the bodies of smaller whales and a starfish, all from the same period. Just a month ago the museum was alerted to another small whale of the same period in Matilija Canyon, just north of the Casitas site.
Experts on the toothed baleen whales say only now are discoveries of the whales picking up. Thirty years ago scientists didn’t know that evidence of an ancient baleen--the bristly filter that whales use to suck in small fish--could be found by looking for tell-tale grooves on fossilized palate bones.
“It sounds counterintuitive to have a baleen whale that has teeth,” said Hans Thewissen, a whale expert and anatomy teacher at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine. “They were in the process of losing their teeth, and the baleen doesn’t fossilize.”
In the northwest United States, where many of North America’s whale fossils have been found, scientists have had a hard time studying them because they are often in hard rock. But some of that material is now being examined, according to Bruce Crowley, a paleontologist at the Burke Museum in Seattle.
But, paleontologists here say it was only a matter of time before someone stumbled across such a find. It helped that Plunkett had an inkling of what he had found.
“Ain’t nature grand?” asked Dave Whistler, a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the natural history museum. “We know they’re out there falling out of rocks all the time. We’re dependent on the goodwill of the general public.”