New whale species found under a California highway

Winky/CC BY 2.0

You just never know what you'll find when you start digging in the dirt, which is why in California, construction projects doing such digging need to have a paleontologist and an archaeologist on site. Thankfully they were on hand during the widening of a California highway that occurred during 2000 to 2005. In the list of amazing things discovered when construction crews set their bulldozers into the Laguna Canyon outcrop, this latest surprise is for anyone with an interest in marine science and evolution. Not just one but several species of early toothed baleen whales were discovered.

Science reports that among hundreds of remains of marine mammals, cetaceans and sharks that lived between 17 million to 19 million years ago, there were four species of toothed baleen whale, one of which scientists had no previous record on and three of which had been found in Japan but never before in California. It is a type of whale that scientists believe went extinct 5 million years before these finds, and which is a common ancestor to the two suborders of whales alive today, toothed (like orcas and dolphins) and baleen (like blue whales).

The researchers -- who have studied the finds over the last few years and just announced their finds this week -- say that these are now the youngest known toothed whales, and the new species (nicknamed "Willy") was far larger than the other species and may have dined on sharks as its favorite food. The researchers figure this because the wear on its teeth is similar to the wear found on killer whale teeth, a species also known to eat sharks.

The researchers are still working on finding out more about these ancient whales, but are very excited that the highway project provided such a rich collection of fossils.

Tags: Animals