Sunday, February 2, 2014

Teachable moment

This unassuming boulder has been resting on the grounds of a private K-12 school in Palos Verdes, California, U.S., ever since the school's construction some 80 years ago. Other hunks of the native sedimentary rock, which dates to the Miocene epoch (12 to 20 million years ago), are scattered around campus or incorporated into the buildings, but Martin Byhower, a 7th-grade science teacher at the Chadwick School, noticed something interesting about this one. At one and is the base of an animal skull and at the other end its lower jaw juts out. Byhower alerted paleontologist Howell Thomas of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, who declared it very special within moments of his on-site inspection. He believes it may in fact belong to a new species of extinct sperm whale. The boulder – 32" (81 cm) long, 26" (66 cm) wide, and 14" (36 cm) deep – is being removed to the museum next week for cleaning and analysis. Chipping away the matrix may take a year, but the fossil will be returned to the school to be used for educational purposes. Byhower, who plans to integrate the surprise fossil find into the curriculum, points out, "People have walked by these fossils for decades and never even seen them. Others have seen them but never really wondered."

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