The Fossil Whale Brains of SLO County

Hey there every peoples!

A quick post today to take advantage of a piece of news while it was fresh. I came across this story in today’s edition of The Telegram Tribune, our local newspaper. It is a story about an incredible find that for me is not only heart warming but also infuriating. Let’s dive right in!

Around nine years ago, a local woman named Pepper O’Shaughnessy was wandering about her family’s property when she noticed something sticking out of a sand bank. She pulled it and had no idea what she just found. What she was holding was a 15 million year old fossilized whale brain. You read that right a fossilized whale brain. Now fossilized brains have been found before, most notably among dinosaurs. But these are usually endocasts, molds of the inside of the skull that show the rough outline of the brain. This whale brain is something else, according to Howel Thomas and Lawrence Barnes, a marine mammal experts at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The fossil whale brain found right here in SLO County!

Dubbed the Olson specimen, the brain is very complete and detailed, so much so that it was initially thought to be brain coral. But further analysis revealed it to be an actual brain and not an invertebrate imitation. And what makes the story more incredible is that this isn’t the first whale brain found in SLO County. Back in the 1940s a partial whale brain was found near Paso Robles, on what is now the Halter Ranch. The specimen is owned by Templeton man Bob MacGillivray of Templeton. According to him, his specimen is not as complete as the Olson specimen but more detailed. And to make these fossils even more amazing is that they each represent different types of whales. The Olson specimen is from a baleen whale and the MacGillivray specimen is from a toothed whale. Alright Howel and Lawrence, lay it on us why these fossils are a big deal (from a preliminary report):

“To have two fossil whale brains from the same geographic area, from the same time period, with the same type of preservation and representing both orders of whales is simply incredible,”

While the MacGillivray specimen is on loan to the LA Museum, the Olsons have other plans for their fossil. This requires a trip back to 1998. Pepper O’Shaughnessy’s niece, Tara Olson, and her friends were coming back from a concert in Paso Robles when she fell asleep at the wheel and wrecked here car. Tara survived the accident but suffered brain damage. Doctors thought that she’d be paralyzed for life and would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of her days. But Tara fought on. She was sent to the Brucker Biofeedback Center in Miami, Florida. With sheer tenacity and attitude, she was able to get back on her feet in 3 weeks. She now walks with a cane and has some trouble speaking, but considering her original prognosis, she’s accomplished the unthinkable. Now the Olson family wants to help others with neurological troubles by opening a branch of Brucker Center on the west coast, right here in SLO County. And they plan on using their rarest of fossils to fund it. They hope to find a philanthropist to sell the fossil to. The ideal situation is to use the money to at least get the ball rolling on the neurological center and the donor would donate the fossil to a museum. While i am staunchly opposed to the sale of fossils, this plan doesn’t sound so bad, assuming it went as planned. But what museum would it go to? Alas, that is where this story really gets to me.

If it were to end up in a museum, it would probably be LA. Now i know that would be a good place for it, considering they have the staff and facilities to properly curate and research the specimen. But hear me out. You heard how incredible and important the find is, having two fossil whale brains from the same time and place (from my home of SLO County no less). Add to that the fact that a cast of a sperm whale brain was found in Los Olivos, that makes three whale brains known from the Central Coast. But if the brains went to LA (the Los Olivos specimen is there), then they will have left their “native land”, relegated to the cavernous collections of a (relatively) foreign museum.

The reason i want to start a museum here on the Central Coast is to tell the surprisingly rich story of it’s ancient past. I have come to learn that the Central Coast is full of amazing fossils but almost none are displayed anywhere and finding information on them is quite difficult to say the least.There is a fascinating story to be told here, but it’s not being told. It’s treasures, the fossils, the very words that compose this story are locked away in distant museums. These whale brains would be a great asset to a museum on the Central Coast, but chances are they go elsewhere, to be stored and eventually forgotten.

This is a saga  that i have seen paly out time and time again. Fossil whales were found on the Channel Islands, a place thought to only harbor Pleistocene mammoth bones, ended up in Los Angeles. The same goes for whale fossils found in the vicinity of Lompoc. And other items over the years. I feel the surprising abundance of fossils should be where it can be appreciated and shared, which i feel would be here on the Central Coast. Why don’t these fossils go to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History? It’s a local museum, it should display local fossils! Unfortunately, the museum never had a paleontology curator or an active collecting program. Their fossil collection is limited and simply pales in comparison to the collections of LA and Berkeley, where most of my beloved Central Coast fossils reside. I have toyed with the idea that rather than try to start my own museum up here, instead help the Santa Barbara Museum build their collections. Maybe even create a satellite, like the Sea Center, except devoted to paleontology. But that’s assuming they wanted any part in my lofty ambitions. From what i can gather they  seem happy doing what they are now.

I’m sure all this ranting will amount to nothing. I may have my convictions, but people won’t give a damn. I’m sure that those with the LA Museum and Berkeley will brush my thoughts off as petulant self-entitlement, that they got the fossils first and have no obligation of turning them loose to a regional institution. And they’d be right. I’m nobody. They are are world renowned institutions who run large, successful collecting programs, produce quality research, and conduct important public programs. I’m just some community college hack who sits at home whining about things beyond his control. But this simple fact, that the rich fossil history of the Central Coast is carted away and hidden from the world, and that i can’t do anything about it, is once of the biggest factors in my depression. It is perhaps the biggest source of this overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness that i have to constantly fight. I could put on a fantastic museum with all the fossils i have learned were found hauled away from the Central Coast. The fact that i probably never could, since a significant portion of them are kept at large scale museums, is a most bitter pill to swallow. I can’t help but think it will haunt me forever.

My depression aside, this was a very interesting story. The intentions with the fossil are honorable and Tara’s story of recovery is inspiring. Hopefully these world class fossils will find a good home. I just wish it were the one i created for them…

Till next time.

3 thoughts on “The Fossil Whale Brains of SLO County

  1. Dear depressed Central Coast Fossil lover.
    I am Tara’s mother. Although, I understand your wish for these rare finds to reside in their “home land” and in a museum of their own……….you have two problems. We do not have anyone qualified to study the calliber of these fossils and WHO is going to FUND this kind of Museum? Who is going to pay for a syncroton machine to do the intense studies required to help prove and differentiate an endocast or true brain…..there is a BIG difference! Having said that, I must correct you on the fact that there are only Two true fossilized brains ever found. Although, I appreciate your passion for our past history, I need to emphasize how little credit or notice the central coast gave us of our finds…..Only until, the LA Museum of Natural History, were we even able to get anywhere. This is also true for the McGilvray Brain as well.

    I must also tell you that we thought long and hard regarding the science factor verses the HUMAN factor and the pros and cons of what this brain would bring. You obviously do not have children, much less almost loose one…..but because I would NOT accept the absolute of the pure science in helping Tara recover, I went outside the box. It was not only the Brucker therapy that brought her back to us, but it did play a big roll…….Most people who are in our shoes can not afford to go to these facilities for 3 weeks of their lives and with their loved ones who also miss work. We began to think, what are the odds of this spectacular find of a fossilized whale brain providing for a neuro center to help people regain their lives.? What is wrong with giving people a chance of possiblilties, they thought would never happen.
    In a perfect world, the brain will end up back into a study. There is an article coming out in the Naturalist and National Geographic. Reading about these great finds and their historical studies is often HOW we learn…..it’s OK that they do not reside right here. By educating ourselves, whether it is hands on or in print, it is progress in one’s self. Might I suggest that you volunteer at a Museum or that you further your career in one of these arenas of study?
    The archeology at Cal Poly could use a little help……you could start there.

    Hope I added some clarity to your quandries and I do hope you find peace in a world that seems to find your life with the glass half empty. At least you are aware of that…..good luck and thank you for your opinions…They made a lot of sense but unfortuantely not realistic.

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