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Geologists Discover a Rare Fossil Find at the End of the Road

April 20, 1985|GORDON GRANT | Times Staff Writer

For years, the site now called Los Coyotes Regional Park was known by the rather ungraceful title of borrow pit.

As such, it loaned millions of tons of sand and gravel to the State of California for construction of portions of two major Orange County freeways.

The state really has never paid back all that material, but something nice happened while the machines were digging it up and hauling it away.

They opened up a window on one of California's most valuable records of what life was like around here hundreds of thousands of years ago.

And something else nice will happen soon when a $500,000 visitors' center and laboratories are built there.

"But it still hurts a little when I think of all the tons and tons of ancient fossils that are out there now on the Santa Ana and Riverside freeways, with people driving over them and not even knowing they're there," Jerry Delnero said with a little laugh.

Delnero is a ranger at the county park on Rosecrans Avenue in Buena Park, and he spends many hours on hands and knees, often digging with his bare fingers, to collect fragments of fossilized pond turtles, mammoths, camels, sabertoothed tigers, twigs and leaves.

He and others, including students and volunteers, have been using a trailer as a laboratory for cleaning and assembling these relics, most of which are from 10,000 to 15,000 years old, but some of which date from the early Pleistocene age 2 million years back.

The remains of most of the terrestrial animals found at the park--extinct horses, two species of camels, mammoths and others--are from a time 11,000 to 15,000 years ago, according to Senior Park Ranger E. Parker Hancock.

"During that period," he said, "a stream came down from the hills to a marshy place here, and when animals came to drink, they were either killed by other animals or trapped in the mud."

He said Los Coyotes has had space for only a few specimens to be displayed publicly. Consequently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History has about 4,000 items, including whale and shark fossils from the Pleistocene period, when ocean waters covered what now are the cities of Buena Park and Fullerton, about 10 miles from today's coastline.

But on April 30, ground will be broken on a site overlooking the Los Coyotes Park lake for a center that will contain public exhibits, offices and laboratories with windows through which visitors can watch technicians at work on specimens.

Architect Ron Yeo said the $591,000 building, financed by the county and by federal Land and Water Conservation funds, probably will be completed before the end of this year.

The rather dramatic discovery of the site came about after the state Division of Highways (now Caltrans) bought about 85 acres that straddle the line between Fullerton and Buena Park and, between 1956 and 1973, hauled away sand and gravel for the freeway work.

Rick Sherry, a park planner in the county Environmental Management Agency, said about 11 million cubic yards of material was taken from the borrow pit. In those days, he said, unlike today, the presence of archeologists or other scientists was not required at such operations, but some geology students and their instructors made field trips there and found rich fossil deposits.

Later on, Sherry said, public interest resulted in petitions sent to the Board of Supervisors, and finally, in September of 1977, the county paid the state $1.2 million for the 85 acres, and Los Coyotes Park opened in 1981.

A paleontologist, Dr. George Callison, instructor at Cal State Long Beach and member of the Orange County Historical Commission, said the finds in the Los Coyotes site fall within the same time range as those of the famous Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles.

He said Los Coyotes "records the transition (over thousands of years) from a marine to a terrestrial environment, from whales and sharks to land animals such as horses," a species of which is believed to have died out on this continent about 7,000 years ago.

Callison added that "we suppose humans did occupy this territory in those times, but we haven't verified that yet."

As for Ranger Delnero, scratching around in the rubble for relics of eons past seems to have developed in him a rare patience.

"The La Brea tar pits were opened in 1904," he said, "and they're still cleaning and assembling bones and fossils that were picked up in 1915.

"I'll probably be dead before these things are pieced together." He held up a little tray of fragments.

"I think these are the bones of some four-legged animal that lived here more than 10,000 years ago."

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