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20+ Million Year Old Fossils Recovered From Channel Islands; Now In Santa Barbara For Study

A create filled with sea cow fossils found on Santa Rosa Island is lifted by crane off a boat at Ventura Harbor

A boat is arriving in Ventura Harbor, wrapping up a trip from the Channel Islands which was more than 20 million years in the making. As Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History geologist Jonathan Hoffman watches, a crane moves a 700 pound crate from the boat to a dock. Inside are some fossils which may be the oldest of their kind ever found on the West Coast, from what’s known as a Sea Cow.

Hoffman says the fossils were found by some geologists on the north side of Santa Rosa Island, who were involved in a seismic study. They shared their discovery with paleontologists.

It's believed the fossils originally came from the ocean in the San Diego County area, but over time land movement moved them to the island.

Researchers had to isolate the fossils, and prepare the huge chunks of rock they were encased in for shipment from Santa Rosa Island. It took a team of more than 15 people nearly a month to get the two fossil chunks ready removal from the island.

Then, because of the rugged terrain, they had to be airlifted by helicopter from the fossil site to a boat for the trip to shore.

Now, researchers at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History will spend the next few months carefully removing the rock around the fossils. Hoffman, who is the Dibley Collection Manager of Earth Science at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natura History, says the museum serves as a repository for fossils removed from the Channel Islands.

Hoffman says they appear to have most of the skeleton of a six to eight foot long sea cow, but he says what’s even more exciting is a skull. He says excavating it is top priority, and that we could potentially learn a lot from it.

He says after more than a year of effort, having the fossils onshore and ready for being exposed for study is exciting. But, Hoffman admits they have to temper the excitement, because it is exacting, precise work to uncover the fossils without damaging them.

The researchers will use some of the materials collected from around the fossils, like the remains of clam shells, to try to come up with a more precise estimate of the sea cow’s age.

The goal is to not just make the research available to scientists, but to eventually make the fossils open for public viewing at the museum in Santa Barbara.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral. 
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