Earlier this year, a discovery was made at the site of the future Historic Broadway Station, one of three new Regional Connector stations. While performing station excavation, crews discovered a large bone that likely belongs to an extinct Miocene-aged whale that lived approximately 10 to 15 million years ago.
With an appreciation for the scientific value of fossil preservation and various government regulations, Metro has hired paleontologists at each project to monitor excavation efforts and identify and preserve fossils when needed. To learn more about the discovery, we contacted Paleo Solutions’ principal paleontologist Courtney Richards, M.S.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Can you tell us about what was discovered?
An isolated large marine mammal bone was discovered in the sidewall of the Broadway Station during excavation…it was tentatively identified as a whale (Cetacea) vertebra.
What kind of prehistoric species does this fossil belong to? How old is it?
Unfortunately the fossil was not identifiable to species. However, it likely belongs to an extinct Miocene-aged whale that lived approximately 10 to 15 million years ago based on the age of the geologic formation it is preserved within, and the initial evaluation of the discovery.
It’s hard to imagine something 10 million years old! Any details on the organism’s origin or lifespan?
Whales evolved from land mammals that lived during the Eocene Epoch around 55 million years ago. By the late Miocene, when the Regional Connector whale lived, both groups of modern whales (baleen [Mysticeti] and toothed [Odontoceti]) had evolved and were common in the ocean that completely covered the Los Angeles Basin, including the Regional Connector site.
Los Angeles looks much different now, especially down in the construction site. Can you describe the process for excavating the fossil?
In this particular case, the majority of the fossil whale discovery was preserved in place rather than excavated since the fossil was discovered at a depth of over 50 feet below the surface and was in a finished sidewall of the Broadway Station. Only the pieces that had already been impacted by the construction equipment were removed from the site.
Interesting, so the bone fragment was discovered at the perimeter of the new station and beyond the limits of excavation. What will you do with the fossil?
All of the fossils recovered during the project, will be offered to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Museum curation ensures that the fossils are available for scientific research, as well as public education, outreach, and display for decades to come.
How often have fossils been discovered on the project?
Vertebrate fossil discoveries have been rare on the Regional Connector project; so this was an exciting find! However, there have been a wide variety of well preserved fossil shells discovered during this project, which can often times tell researchers more about the ancient environment of the Los Angeles Basin than the larger discoveries.
How does this cetacean vertebrae compare with other discoveries made in your career?
I’ve been lucky to be a part of numerous fossil discoveries and excavations during my career. Since this cetacean vertebrae was an isolated find in a formation well-known for its fossil whales, it is not the most scientifically important fossil discovery that I have been a part of. However, it does represent the first whale fossil documented on this project and helps paint a picture of prehistoric environment of the Regional Connector area, which makes it an exciting find.
Tell us a little bit more about your experience as a paleontologist. What fascinates you about the profession?
To me, one of the best parts of being a paleontologist is the opportunity to discover new fossils that help to piece together the evolutionary history of the animals we see today, and those that are now extinct.
In particular, I am fascinated by convergent evolution, which is the independent evolution of similar features in taxa that are not closely related. For example, the similar body shapes of ichthyosaurs (ancient marine reptiles) and modern day dolphins, and the independent evolution of wings in pterosaurs (extinct flying reptiles), birds, and bats.
What was your path towards becoming a paleontologist and consulting with the Regional Connector?
Fossils and prehistoric animals have fascinated me since I was 3 years old, so I knew early on that paleontology was the career path I wanted to follow. Since paleontology requires both a knowledge of geology and biology, I pursued one as an undergraduate degree in college, and the other as a graduate degree. Upon graduation I started looking for applied paleontology jobs instead of ones in academia, which lead me to environmental consulting and the opportunity to be involved with the Regional Connector project.
Finally, why is a paleontologist needed on the Regional Connector project?
Fossils are non-renewable and scientifically important resources, that can never be replaced once destroyed. The State of California recognizes the value of these resources and put laws and regulations in place to protect them during construction of new projects, such as the Regional Connector.
In an effort to preserve significant fossils, Metro hired paleontologists to be on-site during construction at Regional Connector which has allowed for the recovery of dozens of discoveries to date. Due to construction, we are provided with wonderful subsurface exposures of the Los Angeles Basin that we would not have had access to otherwise.