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Low tides reveal mysterious fossil near Santa Cruz

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A large, mysterious fossil appeared on California’s Central Coast this week, baffling researchers and setting science Twitter ablaze. 

“Definitely one of the best sea fossil specimens I’ve stumbled upon. What on Earth was it?” wrote San Jose State University professor Dustin Mulvaney on Twitter, sharing photos of the strange gray mass, along with other 3-foot-long specimens. 

Mulvaney stumbled on this ancient trove below the Capitola bluffs, a small coastal area about 6 miles away from Santa Cruz, he told SFGATE. The rugged shoreline normally isn’t accessible, he said, but he was finally able to visit during low tides. King tides — extreme high and low tides, which helped create an “even more dramatic coastline” in Santa Cruz County this winter, the county noted — made for ideal exploring conditions. For any scientist interested in environmentalism or primordial earth, it’s well worth the trek to the Capitola cliffs in particular: “Only that section of bluff has these fossils,” Mulvaney added. 

It’s unclear where these fossils came from or exactly how old they are, but other researchers have chimed in and offered potential explanations. Mulvaney speculated that the gray, oblong mass belongs to an ancient marine mammal between 5 million and 7 million years old. Or it could be a cervical vertebrae of a “balaenopterid baleen” whale, which would be 3 million to 4 million years old, paleontologist Robert Boessenecker tweeted, sharing a similar photo taken by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005 (the Chronicle and SFGATE are both owned by Hearst but have separate newsrooms). 



There are many kinds of baleen whale, and it’s not clear which type Boessenecker may have been referring to. But broadly, they are all very large. Today’s baleen whales range in size but can grow more than 100 feet long, according to the group Whale and Dolphin Conservation. They earned the name due to their “baleen,” or oral filter system that collects krill and fish. Though baleen whales like humpbacks and minkes can “gulp monstrous-sized mouthfuls of seawater and food,” the group said, they’re still probably much less scary than the toothed ancestors they evolved from. 

For more information about tide conditions in Santa Cruz County, please visit the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration website before visiting any coastal areas.   


A large, mysterious fossil appeared on California’s Central Coast this week, baffling researchers and setting science Twitter ablaze. 

“Definitely one of the best sea fossil specimens I’ve stumbled upon. What on Earth was it?” wrote San Jose State University professor Dustin Mulvaney on Twitter, sharing photos of the strange gray mass, along with other 3-foot-long specimens. 

Mulvaney stumbled on this ancient trove below the Capitola bluffs, a small coastal area about 6 miles away from Santa Cruz, he told SFGATE. The rugged shoreline normally isn’t accessible, he said, but he was finally able to visit during low tides. King tides — extreme high and low tides, which helped create an “even more dramatic coastline” in Santa Cruz County this winter, the county noted — made for ideal exploring conditions. For any scientist interested in environmentalism or primordial earth, it’s well worth the trek to the Capitola cliffs in particular: “Only that section of bluff has these fossils,” Mulvaney added. 

It’s unclear where these fossils came from or exactly how old they are, but other researchers have chimed in and offered potential explanations. Mulvaney speculated that the gray, oblong mass belongs to an ancient marine mammal between 5 million and 7 million years old. Or it could be a cervical vertebrae of a “balaenopterid baleen” whale, which would be 3 million to 4 million years old, paleontologist Robert Boessenecker tweeted, sharing a similar photo taken by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005 (the Chronicle and SFGATE are both owned by Hearst but have separate newsrooms). 



There are many kinds of baleen whale, and it’s not clear which type Boessenecker may have been referring to. But broadly, they are all very large. Today’s baleen whales range in size but can grow more than 100 feet long, according to the group Whale and Dolphin Conservation. They earned the name due to their “baleen,” or oral filter system that collects krill and fish. Though baleen whales like humpbacks and minkes can “gulp monstrous-sized mouthfuls of seawater and food,” the group said, they’re still probably much less scary than the toothed ancestors they evolved from. 

For more information about tide conditions in Santa Cruz County, please visit the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration website before visiting any coastal areas.   

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