BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
A 15.5-million-year-old fossilized dolphin skull found by an amateur paleontologist in an ocean-laid deposit outside of Bakersfield has been identified as likely belonging to a new dolphin species.
The discovery, apparently made during an episode of National Geographic Channel's series "America's Lost Treasures," has been confirmed by Lawrence G. Barnes, a renowned curator emeritus of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, according to a news release sent from National Geographic Channel on Friday.
For more about Lisa and Sean Tohill and their 85-acre Miocene landscape, go to sharktoothhillfossils.com.
"This animal is globally significant to science," Barnes said of the fossil find.
The discovery of the new dolphin can help scientists understand the relationships among other extinct and living dolphins in its group, and determine how many species of animals were living in the North Pacific when the Shark Tooth Hill Bonebed formed, he said. In addition, the discovery has implications for modern species diversity and conservation.
"I have never before seen a dolphin skull like this," Barnes said.
The fossil was excavated from the Shark Tooth Hill bonebed northeast of Bakersfield and Oildale. Known for the huge number of ancient shark teeth and other fossils found there, the bonebed is one of the most prolific deposits of its age and kind in the North Pacific realm, making it the standard of comparison for other similar-age fossil deposits from a time in Earth history called the Miocene.
The species was found last year by amateur paleontologist Lisa Tohill, who, along with her husband Sean Tohill, own 85 acres atop the bonebed just north of the Kern River.
She always suspected she had something special, but it wasn't until Lisa Tohill decided to participate in a taping of an episode of "America's Lost Treasures" at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles that she began to realize that she had made an extraordinary scientific discovery.
"I've just been on a fossil high," said the 58-year-old who first visited Shark Tooth Hill when she was only 7. "This is heaven for someone like me."
Just weeks ago, The Californian spoke with Tohill about the show, but she declined to divulge details of her find in deference to the show's producers. But once the news was out, she could hardly contain her delight.
The National Geographic Channel film crew came to her property in February, she said, the same week she and Sean traveled to the Autry Center.
"It was the most exciting week we've ever had," she said.
The way the series works, hosts Curt Doussett and Kinga Philipps travel to 10 U.S. cities and invite locals to bring in their relics to find out what they're really worth.
Working with top museum curators, appraisers and other experts, Doussett and Philipps each trace the history of three chosen items, according to Friday's news release.
When the investigation is complete, owners and their families learn the true story-- and value -- of their treasured objects. At the end of each episode, it's down to two finalists, and a winner is awarded $10,000 as special recognition for the importance of the item in American history.
Winning objects will be featured in a special exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C.
Tohill's dolphin skull fossil is currently housed at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and Tohill has been given permission to work with the museum's experts in preparing and studying the fossil.
For an admitted paleo-geek like Tohill, it's a dream come true.
She's been working so closely with paleontologist Barnes that she simply refers to him as "Larry."
"I don't know if I should say this, but I think it's OK," Tohill said. "Larry wants me to co-author a paper on the dolphin -- and he wants me to name it!"
She only laughed when someone suggested it's a "Tohill dolphin."
Tohill and her husband, who live in Simi Valley, purchased the local land with the intention of unearthing a wealth of Miocene-era fossils she believes are waiting just below the surface.
"It's not about the money," she said. "It's about the science."
By using proper scientific protocols -- documenting exact locations and dates, and taking great care to excavate without doing damage to the fossils -- the Tohills hope to bring to this area "the notoriety it deserves."
"I think we're going to find other discoveries," Lisa Tohill said. "I can feel it in my bones.
The episode premieres at 10 p.m. Aug. 22 on the National Geographic Channel.