Rare Whale Fossil Excavated From SoCal Backyard

Discovered more than thirty years ago, the fossil was lifted out of a Rancho Palos Verdes ravine by search-and-rescue volunteers

A rare whale fossil is getting a new home an estimated 16 to 17 million years since it landed in what would become a Rancho Palos Verdes, Southern California, backyard.

There are just 20 or so baleen whale fossils in the world, said paleontologist Howell Thomas of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles said Friday as crews worked to excavate the fossil, which was lodged in a 1,000-pound rock.

“This is a really important fossil,” Thomas said.

Baleen whales are characterized by their baleen, a system of plates used to strain their food through water instead of teeth.

The fossil was discovered in the summer of 1978 by a teenage Gary Johnson, when he was exploring the backyard of his family’s house.

Johnson, now 53, said he reached out to another local museum at the time, but they could not figure out how to move the massive fossil. When another whale fossil was discovered on the property of a nearby school and excavated by the Natural History Museum, he reached out to the organization to see if they might be interested in his fossil.

Thomas told him they were interested.

More than three decades after its initial discovery, the fossil was hoisted from the backyard ravine by Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department search-and-rescue volunteers, who were using the excavation as a training exercise.

The volunteers were able to remove the fossil and it’s now headed to the museum, where it’s bound for a research collection. There are no plans to display the find.

For Johnson, the excavation is something of a relief.

“It’s kind of my baby,” he said. “And now it’s going to a good home.”

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