A Sherman Oaks woman planting flowers for her backyard wedding discovered the remains of a 10-million-year-old sperm whale, the first ever found in Los Angeles County, scientists said Tuesday.
Paleontologists for the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History said the fossilized pieces of skull and jawbone will give them important clues about what the prehistoric mammal looked like and where it ranged.
Alison Epstein, 25, said she unearthed the fossils by accident about a year ago as she was planting azaleas in preparation for her backyard wedding last June 7. She said she thought she had simply dug up a rock.
But a neighbor, construction contractor Toby Cohantz, spied what looked like a tooth when he moved the rock to make a decorative sidewalk border for the wedding. "I thought it might be a prehistoric horse or something, so I called the museum," Cohantz, 34, said.
A backlog of work and a halt to digging during the winter prevented further excavation until Tuesday.
The scientists' first look at the bones unearthed from the yard on Valley Vista Boulevard suggested that sperm whales--an endangered species today--have undergone a significant evolution, officials said. The fossilized skull had two rows of large teeth, unlike the single lower row of smallish teeth that modern sperm whales have.
"This sort of fills in one of the gaps in the evolution of sperm whales and whales in general," said Samuel A. McLeod, a museum vertebrate paleontology specialist who headed Tuesday's excavation.
"This is a very significant find," said Lawrence Barnes, chairman of the department of vertebrate paleontology for the Natural History Museum. "We just don't have animals like this from other places on the coast, except for one dinky tooth fossil from Palos Verdes."
Whale bones previously found in Los Angeles County have come from the more common baleen whale, toothless animals that frequent shallow ocean waters, he said. Sperm whales are deep-water mammals.
Barnes said the museum has hundreds of thousands of fossil specimens for study, "but this one will take a front seat for research, I'm sure."
The 20-foot whale apparently died and sank to the ocean bottom during the Miocene epoch, which lasted from about 25 million years ago to 7 million years ago, officials said. At that time, the ocean extended inland to what is now Newhall, San Fernando and Pasadena.
Although more of the whale's remains are likely to be in the area, no more excavation is planned for now.
Matt Epstein, 28, president of a telemarketing company, said he and his wife deeded the fossils and any others on their property to the museum, giving scientists permission to excavate further if their 61-year-old hillside house is ever remodeled or torn down.