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Utility Company Finds Fossil Treasure At Building Site

September 21, 2010

A utility company found a trove of animal fossils that dates back 1.4 million years at a building site it was working on. Researchers say the find could help fill in the blanks of Southern California’s history.

The area contains nearly 1,500 bone fragments, including a giant cat that was the ancestor of the saber-toothed tiger, ground sloths the size of a modern-day grizzly bear, two types of camels and over 1,200 bones from small rodents.  Researchers said that other finds include a new species of deer, horse and possibly llama.

Workers have also uncovered signs of plant life that indicate birch, pine, sycamore, marsh reeds and oak trees that once grew in the area that is now dry and sparsely vegetated.

The fossils will be on display at the Western Science Center in nearby Hemet next year and have already all been removed from the site.

Rick Greenwood, a microbiologist who is director of corporate environment health and safety for the utility, Southern California Edison, told The Associated Press (AP) that the bones are about 1 million years older than those found in the famous La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

“If you step back, this is just a huge find,” he told AP. “Everyone talks about the La Brea Tar Pits, but I think this is going to be much larger in terms of its scientific value to the research community.”

Greenwood continued: “Some of the things I personally find fascinating are the prehistoric camels and llamas and horses and deer. I don’t think most people even have the concept that those types of animals were roaming around here more than a million years ago.”

Paleontologist Tom Demere, of the San Diego Museum of Natural History, told AP that the fossil trove cannot be directly compared to the La Brea Tar Pits because they contain different species and shed light on different eras.  He said that regardless, the collection could advance scientists’ understanding of life in South California 1.4 million years ago.

“We have a fuzzy view of what this time period was like in terms of mammal evolution,” Demere said. “A discovery like this “” when they’re all found together and in a whole range of sizes “” could really be an important contribution.”

The fossils were discovered in San Timoteo Canyon near the ancient river valley about 85 miles southeast of Los Angeles.  Philippe Lapin, an archaeologist for the utility company, told AP the area is now arid and dusty and shadowed by the San Bernardino Mountains to the north. 

The dig started last fall and wrapped up this summer.  Southern California Edison spokeswoman Lauren Bartlett told AP that the substation project is moving forward.

Scientists who are studying the dig believe that many skeletons were preserved because of a muddy lake bed or marsh that may have trapped animals that came to drink there.

Experts said that the bones were dated back by observing the layers of sediment they were discovered in.

Other fossils from that time period are believed to have been dug up from dozens of sites around California.

Scientists say the new discovery will add important information to what is already known.

Paleontologist Jere Lipps of the University of California, Berkley, told AP that researchers discover new species all the time, but uncovering so many from a single site is rare.

“If they really are new species, that strikes me as something that would be pretty important,” Lipps said.

He said that their presence indicates the area was moist and lush during the time.

“It’s going to paint a comprehensive picture of what was going on in the area,” Lapin told AP. “The species that we’re finding haven’t been found before, or they’re very rare, and some of them that we’re finding are more complete than what’s on record now.”

Image Caption: The bones found at the dig site are believed to be about 1 million years older than those found in the famous La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. Here you see the La Brea Tar Pits fauna as depicted by Charles R. Knight

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