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Oregon’s ocean ancestry makes for fossilized fun
Oregon Coast Notes - News

From the University of Oregon's Daily Emerald

New natural history exhibit showcases whale evolution with native Oregon fossils

Oregon Emerald photoUniversity junior and anthropology major Robert Divine spent his Friday night, unlike most students, removing dirt from a 14 million-year-old fossilized whale skull using a file and a tooth brush. “If you push too hard or slip, the whole fossil is potentially ruined,” Divine said as he slowly filed away dirt from the skull. “It’s very exciting and very nerve-wracking to work on this one-of-a-kind fossil.”

This fossil and others are on display at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History’s “Whales of Deep Time” exhibit, the first phase of the three-part series, “PaleoLab - Oregon’s Past Revealed.” This exhibit chronicles the evolution of whales from four-legged land mammals to the graceful sea creatures we recognize today.

Scientists believe whales evolved from land-dwelling species such as Pakicetus inachus — a furry creature similar to a wolf — because of depleting food sources. These mammals began eating fish and eventually developed traits to accommodate their diets, such as internal ears and blowholes.

The majority of the exhibit’s fossils were found near Astoria and other coastal cities. Specimens are common along the coast because shells and whale bones that settled on the sea floor in prehistoric times gradually moved upward into modern-day sea cliffs. Many of the specimens are also on loan from other Oregon museums.

The whale skull that Divine had the opportunity to work on is one of the exhibit’s biggest highlights. Volunteer Beverly Fernandes said paleontologists believed the fossil was evidence of a previously undiscovered ancient whale species. Fernandes, who has also worked on the skull, said it would take hundreds of hours to separate the fossil from the surrounding matrix, or dirt.

“It would be faster if we took (the fossil) into a lab, but there’s always the risk of ruining the fossil by rushing the process,” Fernandes said. “This also gives us a chance to interact with the community.”

The museum is even hosting a contest where people can guess how long it will take to finish work on the fossil. Whoever guesses closest to the final number of hours wins a certificate to the museum’s gift shop.

The exhibit also features several fossils from the Condon Collection, Oregon’s official fossil repository. The Condon Collection was established to preserve fossils found in Oregon. To be added to the collection, a fossil must be cataloged, assigned a number and have detailed records attached. Museum volunteers are responsible for much of this.

“Without the volunteers, many of these specimens would go uncataloged and unpreserved,” Fernandes said.

One of the exhibit’s attractions is a display that compares the bones of modern dolphins and whales, such as the Bowhead whale and Risso’s dolphin, side by side with their ancestors.

One feature of that attraction is a 17 million-year-old Platanistoidea dolphin skull, which was found in Lincoln County. This particular fossil is significant to paleontologists because the species lived in the sea, instead of freshwater rivers. The fact that this Platanistoidea dolphin lived in the ocean, unlike its freshwater descendants, suggests that its prominent snout developed long before it changed habitats.

The main purpose of “Whales of Deep Time” is to show visitors how rich Oregon’s natural history is, Fernandes said.

“We want to excite people about what’s going on in Oregon, because it’s a very exciting place and always has been,” said Fernandes.

Daily Emerald