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120,000-year-old whale bone unearthed in Oceanside

Above: This 120,000-year-old rib bone is hypothesized to belong to a modern whale species. Photo courtesy of DPR Construction

OCEANSIDE — A fossil estimated to be at least 120,000 years old was found on the site of the future Oceanside Beachfront Resort in May.

The ancient bone was found as construction crews were digging on site to make way for the new resort, which is expected to be finished late next year.

Todd Wirths, a paleontologist with the environmental consulting group Brian F. Smith & Associates, has assumed the fossil is a whale rib bone. 

Wirths needs to clean the bone and put it back together before he can be sure about whether it once belonged to a whale.

“I can tell you that it is a rib bone for sure,” he added.

Assuming that it is a whale, Wirths said it would be a modern species as the evolution process of whales is much slower than other mammals.

The bone is currently in “two to three dozen pieces” as a result of the digging operations during construction of the resort. Finding fossils broken to pieces by machinery during construction projects like the resort is pretty typical, Wirths noted.

“They’re digging with heavy equipment and we find things that get smashed in the process,” he said.

State law mandates that construction projects like the resort have consultants like those from Brian F. Smith & Associates on site to watch for possible archaeological finds like the bone.

Cheryle Hunt has been the consulting group’s regular monitor on site since construction first started in February and was the person who noticed the bone as it was being dug up.

The bone was uncovered and “spread all around” with the last scoop of sand at the deepest point of excavation, Wirths said. Hunt then told the operators to stop so she could collect the bone.

With only one bone found Wirths would expect to find more but noted there are a “lot of variables” involved since the animal’s death that could complicate finding any more of its pieces.

Wirths hypothesized that the whale was beached after it died, and as it lay rotting there ocean waves dismembered the body, thus spreading the bones up and down the beach.

“We found this isolated rib bone — there may have been more and we may have missed them, or we may have not,” he said. “We’re still looking.”

Eventually, the bone will be glued back together and dipped in a preservative before it’s sent to the San Diego Natural History Museum, which has an exhibit that displays fossils as old as 75 million years that were found locally in Southern and Baja California.

Plenty of fossils have been found in North County over the years. Neighboring Carlsbad in particular is known for producing lots of fossils from the Pleistocene, the same geological epoch that Wirths has assumed the whale rib bone originates.

Digging needs to stop before Wirths can begin the lab phase of their project with the bone.

“The discovery of the fossilized whale bone was greeted with interest by the entire project team,” said David Mayo, DPR Construction project manager. “DPR Construction were pleased to assist with the removal and transfer to the experts.”

Oceanside Beachfront Resort project owner S.D. Malkin has donated the fossil finds, according to Mayo.