Paleontologists excavate rare whale fossil from backyard in Southern California

"This is a really important fossil," said paleontologist Howell Thomas.
By Brooks Hays  |  Aug. 4, 2014 at 12:12 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- There are only about 20 baleen whale fossils in the world. The latest is now sitting in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County after it was dislodged from the backyard of a suburban home over the weekend. The fossil is still wedged in a giant hung of rock, weighing more than 1,000 pounds.

On Saturday, the massive rock and its resident baleen whale fossil were pulled from a yard in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., using a series of pulleys and a steel trolley. The effort was aided by search-and-rescue volunteers with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The whale is estimated to be roughly 16 or 17 million years old.

Baleen whales are the family of whales that used plates to filter their food from the water -- as opposed to using teeth to catch and chew prey. Baleen whales are generally larger than toothed whales; the family includes the blue whale, the world's most massive mammal.

"This is a really important fossil," paleontologist Howell Thomas told a local NBC affiliate. The museum, where Thomas works, will host the whale for research purposes, but says it has no plans to display it.

The excavation comes almost four decades after the whale fossil was first discovered by Gary Johnson, then a teenager, in the summer of 1978. He was exploring the creek behind his family's house when he found it. He said he and his family reached out to museums upon the initial find, but no one was interested in attempting such a difficult excavation.

When Johnson, now 53, heard about a whale being dug up by the Natural History Museum from a school nearby, he decided to reach out and see if there'd be renewed interest in his family's own backyard treasure.

The museum took him up on the offer of a new specimen.

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