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Fossil buried in sandstone and red tape

Experts seek to preserve whale skull while agencies work out excavation details.

January 15, 2008|My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writer

For months, maybe years, hikers trekking along the muddy creek bed stamped over it, mistaking it for a large rock.

But Daryll Hansen knew differently. The amateur paleontologist could tell the flat gray hump protruding from the dusty sandstone was a rare prehistoric gem: a 5-foot-long baleen whale skull left from millions of years ago when Aliso Creek in Lake Forest was underwater.

Hansen discovered the fossil more than a year ago, but it has stayed encased in the gritty sediment, locked in bureaucracy and red tape as Orange County agencies struggle to coordinate having the skull removed and preserved.

Fossil experts working with Orange County's official paleontologist want the bone excavated, fearing that it will get washed away in the next storm or that vandals will get to it first. Someone has already built a fire pit in the mug-sized hole where the spine connected to the skull.

But the creek is property of the county's flood control division, and any excavating is also going to take lots of paperwork. In the meantime, the fossil is stuck in limbo among various departments.

Hansen, 53, found the fossil in September 2006 while on a weekend stroll along Lake Forest's creek beds, known for hiding thousands of remains from millions of years ago. He nearly passed over the little hole in the ground that turned out to be the foramen magnum, where the spinal cord went through the skull.

Completely intact whale skulls are extremely rare finds, said Lisa Babilonia, Orange County's paleontologist. Most of the time, only fragments, such as jawbones and smaller pieces, survive.

The skull is from the Miocene period, which ranges from 5 million to 25 million years ago, when marine mammals swam in the waters that covered what is now Southern California, Babilonia said.

She estimated that the whale skull was about 10 million years old. Most of it is under sandstone, but Babilonia said it is about 3 feet wide and 5 feet long.

Getting the fossil out is not as simple as going to the creek and digging it up, she said. Her department has to work with the flood agency to make sure the water channels and creek bed don't get destroyed when the bone is removed.

"We'd like to get it excavated, but we're just dealing with paperwork and coordinating different agencies in the county," Babilonia said.

Babilonia and officials from the flood control division have yet to visit the fossil to make an assessment and figure out a plan for excavating it.

Nadeem Majaj, flood control division manager, recalls e-mails back and forth about the fossil in June and meetings that were supposed to follow. But he said he hadn't heard about efforts to excavate the fossil in a while and added that no one in his department was working on it.

Officials still need to obtain insurance to excavate the skull and get permits to make sure the agency is not violating any fish and game regulations, Majaj said.

"From the flood control perspective, we certainly support the excavation and placing it where it belongs," Majaj said. "There shouldn't be a reason why anyone should stand in front of this work."

In the meantime, other paleontologists are closely watching over the skull. Last week, a few climbed down a 10-foot dirt wall, past fan palms and a creek to the dune surrounding the fossil.

"If someone came with a big rock, they can break part of it right off," said Dave Alexander, who works for a few paleontology companies.

He's worried that people will figure out where the skull is and try to pull it out. The skull could also be destroyed in the next rainstorm, Alexander said. He said this happened once when he found a whale skull a few years ago only to return after a storm to discover that rocks had smashed it.

There has been so much development in Southern California that the odds are against finding fossils such as this one in suburban Orange County, Alexander said.

He and his colleagues shoveled dirt and scattered leaves and sticks atop the skull, hoping that what survived for millions of years was buried deeply enough to withstand the time it takes for county agencies to untangle themselves.

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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