Rare fossil of sperm whale skull discovered on Palos Verdes school campus
The typically serene campus of Chadwick School atop Palos Verdes Peninsula was the backdrop of a media circus Wednesday morning. News crews—from ABC7, KTLA5, Fox11, NBCLA—flanked the school entrance as a crowd of students, faculty and reporters hovered over the subject of allure: a 12-million-old fossil of a sperm whale skull embedded in a large chunk of Middle Miocene Era Altamira Shale.
On this day, the 600-pound rock was finally being transferred from Chadwick’s campus to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, where a veteran paleontologist named Howell Thomas will spend a year restoring the unusual fossil to determine its significance.
“What makes it special is the size,” said Thomas, who specializes in fossils of marine mammals and birds. “This is very small for a sperm whale skull, and it doesn’t look like a juvenile to me. We’d have to clean the rock off to find out whether it’s a juvenile or a new species.”
Thomas actually saw the rare fossil for the first time in October 2012. Martin Byhower, a life science teacher at Chadwick School for some 30 years, had invited him in to determine if any of the fossils laying around campus was of particular significance.
“I really wanted to know what they actually were,” Byhower said. “As a science teacher I encourage my students to notice things and be curious about the world. This was a chance for me to model that.”
Byhower showed Thomas several rocks—commonly referred to as “PV stone”—that have been around since the school’s construction nearly 80 years ago. The paleontologist identified them as fossilized whale vertebrae and ribs, nothing too special. Then he was shown the fossilized skull.
“I said, ‘Ah! That one, we need,’” recalled Thomas.
Back at the National History Museum, Thomas will first undertake a photogrammetry study of the fossil, producing a 3D image. Then he will use angle grinders and mini sledgehammers to chip away at the shale until he could positively identify the skull.
If the fossil is indeed a newly identified species, it will likely be named after Chadwick School, which has donated the finding to the museum which in turn will create for the school a detailed model of the fossil for display.
Chadwick sophomore Madeleine Kerr-George, self described as a “huge fan of science,” said she was delighted when her former science teacher announced the finding via email several weeks ago.
“I was always interested in paleontology,” Kerr-George said. “It really makes me happy that other people are interested as well.”
In light of this exciting discovery, Byhower said he wanted to shed light on the U.S. Navy’s precarious and ongoing effort to perform sonic testing to detect submarines.
“I think there’s some irony that we just discovered a new species of whale from 15 million years ago, and yet the Navy now is trying to get congress to approve a bill to do sonic testing that would probably kill tens if not hundreds of thousands of whales,” he said. “Sound is everything to whales. It will burst their eardrums so that they can’t communicate or navigate.”