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10-12 million-year-old Sperm Whale fossils discovered at County landfill

Link to complete Press Kit at end of release

photographer with fossils
The hills of the Frank R. Bowerman Landfill near Irvine hold secrets of the past, even as the land reflects forward-looking environmental engineering at its best.

The fossil find is considered rare and significant.

SANTA ANA, Calif. – How do ancient sperm whale fossils wind up at an elevation of 1,272 feet?

That’s what paleontologists explained at a media briefing today to unveil the recent fossil find of more than 20 sizable pieces, including teeth weighing at least one pound, a flipper bone and portions of jaw and skull bones from a sperm whale dating back 10-12 million years.

“Orange County is blessed with a wide variety of fossil whales, ranging in age from 25 million years old to the modern ones offshore today. The history of whales is well preserved in OC. The Southern California ocean has always been a good place for whales to live. The fossils we are looking at today show that the largest toothed whales also lived in Orange County waters in the past (as they do today), hence are important additions to the whale record of our county,” explained Jere Lipps, director of the Cooper Center, where extensive research on the fossils will be conducted.

Recent work at the County’s Frank R. Bowerman Landfill, near Irvine, uncovered the fossils in late May. The on-site paleontology contractor, Melissa Macias, of the engineering firm Psomas, spotted them as the construction crew was moving soil in preparation for development of a new waste disposal area. As soon as the fossils were noticed, the area became a paleontology excavation site for the next four days.

Since the find, Macias has been preparing the fossils for transfer to the Cooper Center. She and her team applied plaster jackets to specimens to remove them from the dirt. Then they removed the rock inside the plaster jackets to expose bone using dental picks and brushes. Next they used glue to stabilize the bones inside of the jacket and pieced together any fragment of the jaw and skull bones that they could.

Paleontologists consider the find to be rare and significant for several reasons – the age, the elevation at which they were found, the fact that “the majority of whale fossils found in this area are isolated vertebrae and ribs. Finding skull material with a high number of associated teeth is rare,” said Macias. She also noted that the size of the whale would be comparable to modern day sperm whales. The find “adds to our current understanding of the time period,” according to Lipps.

“It’s amazing to think about the history of these fossils that would have never been uncovered if not for the expansion projects at Bowerman landfill,” said Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, in whose 3rd District the landfill is located. “Thanks to the great partnership between OC Parks and Cal State Fullerton the fossils will be ready for public display at our landfill for children and the public to learn from and enjoy.” After the Cooper Center paleontologists complete their research, the fossils will be available to the general public for viewing. Some will be at the landfill; other locations will be announced.

OC Waste & Recycling manages one of the nation’s premiere solid waste disposal systems, which serves 34 cities and more than three million residents. The department operates a network of three active landfills and four household hazardous waste collection centers. OC Waste & Recycling sponsors the Eco Challenge Exhibit at Discovery Cube OC, offering a hands-on learning experience to promote the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Visit for more information.

The Cooper Center is the official repository of the fossils and artifacts collected in Orange County, California. It is a partnership between OC Parks and Cal State Fullerton that preserves, curates and manages fossils and artifacts in Orange County. The center’s collections date as far back as the mid-1930s. The Cooper Center opened its doors in May 2011, realizing a plan to manage millions of fossils and archaeological artifacts found in Orange County.

( Press Kit )