A 13-year-old fossil enthusiast discovered a walrus skull in a boulder in northern California in 2011.
Eleven years later, a paleontologist named the previously unknown and subsequently extinct species.
The toothless walrus probably lived near temperate bays in California about 5 million years ago.
In 2011, a 13-year-old fossil hunter happened upon a beach near a gap in Santa Cruz, California, across the discovery of a lifetime: the complete skull of an unknown 5-million-year-old species of walrus, encased in another. a huge boulder.
The discovery of a new, ancient walrus species has now been named by scientists after the 13-year-old in his honor in a paper recently published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Looking for fossils
Forrest Sheperd has been an enthusiast since he was nine years old and went hunting two or three times a week, finding shells, shark teeth and whale bones.
“I was just fired up and excited about finding fossils,” he told Business Insider.
“I’ve been fossil hunting enough to know what fossilized bone looks like,” he said.
So when he came across the boulder, from the shape, he recognized that it was probably a skull, and with the help of a friend, he dragged the 70-pound rock back to his parents’ car.
Sheperd, who is currently in medical school, credits the paleontologist at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History with identifying many of his fossil finds and connecting him with marine mammal fossil expert Robert Boessenecker.
Eleven years after Sheperd discovered it, Boessenecker named the newly identified walrus species Valenictus sheperdi, after Sheperd’s surname.
“A 13-year-old kid found this fossil,” Boessenecker told Business Insider. “I think that is very significant.”
Ironically, Boessenecker used to comb the same beach looking for fossils. “I’ve been going there since I was 15, so Forrest was luckier than I did,” he said.
Toothless not tuskless
Between graduate school and his Ph.D. to earn, Boessenecker took more than a decade to free the skull, but as he finally began to remove the hard sandstone that surrounded it, he realized that there were no sockets in his jaw for teeth, but a place for teeth . her upper tusks.
The lack of teeth was a clear sign that the skull did not belong to modern walruses, since modern species have teeth, which they use to communicate by bumping together but not to eat.
Boessenecker determined that the skull belonged to the genus Valenictus – the closest relative to a living walrus.
But because the new skull was older and larger than other species of Valenictus and had some physiological differences, Boessenecker suspected it was an unknown species.
He promised to name it after Sheperd.
“To be able to not only find a cool fossil, but to be able to find a fossil that really adds to our understanding in a big new way, that’s a huge achievement for any fossil collector,” Sheperd said.
Millions of years ago, more than a dozen species of walrus roamed the planet. Today, there are only two subspecies left, “which tells us that something strange has happened to walruses in the last few million years,” said Boessenecker.
Ancient walruses used to live in California, and they likely had a similar climate 5 million years ago to now, Boessenecker said. That’s very different from the frigid Arctic temperatures favored by today’s walruses.
In addition, between 2 million and 7 million years ago something happened on the West Coast that caused the disappearance of many species.
“There are all kinds of weird things you find in rocks” in California from that time, Boessenecker said. In addition to walruses, there were strange marine mammals, unusual extinct birds, and strange fish.
“We had giant toothed birds flying around up until about 2 million years ago or so,” he said. Many of Valenictus’ strange companions began to disappear around the same time.
“So what happened on the West Coast?” Boessenecker pos. “Why did we have this incredible species or fauna turnover?”
Scientists think it has something to do with the big change in coastal California geography that happened about 3 or 4 million years ago, he said.
Before the change, the Los Angeles Basin and southern San Joaquin Valley were shallow bays that made perfect hunting grounds for walruses and other marine mammals.
However, changes in climate and the rise of the Sierra Mountains have contributed to the loss of those marine harbors and the walrus’ food supply, Boessenecker said.
“I like to focus on these types of young fossils because it gives us a little perspective on what we still have on the California coast,” Boessenecker said. “It’s an incredible ecosystem, and it’s changed a lot over the last few million years.”
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