Forrest Sheperd as a teenager walking on the beach near where he found an ancient walrus skull.
A 13-year-old fossil enthusiast found a walrus skull in a boulder in northern California in 2011.Eleven years later, a paleontologist has named the formerly unknown, now extinct species after him.The toothless walrus likely lived near temperate bays in California about 5 million years ago.
In 2011, a 13-year-old fossil hunter on a beach near bluffs in Santa Cruz, California, happened across the find of a lifetime: the complete skull of an unknown, 5-million-year-old walrus species, encased in a giant boulder.
His discovery has now led to the identification of a new, ancient species of walrus, which scientists named after the 13-year-old in his honor in a recent paper published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
An enthusiast since the age of nine, Forrest Sheperd would go hunting two to three times a week, finding shells, shark teeth, and whale bones.
“I was just absolutely on fire and ecstatic about finding fossils,” he told Business Insider.
“I had been fossil hunting enough to know what fossilized bone looks like,” he said.
So when he came across the boulder, from the shape, he recognized it was likely a skull, and he, with the help of a friend, hauled the 70-pound rock back to his parents’ car.
Sheperd, who’s currently in medical school, credits the paleontologist at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History with identifying many of his fossil finds and connecting him with marine mammal fossil expert Robert Boessenecker.
Co-authors Robert Boessenecker and Sarah Boessenecker hold the Valenictus walrus skull.
Eleven years after Sheperd found it, Boessenecker named the newly-identified walrus species Valenictus sheperdi, after Sheperd’s last name.
“This fossil was found by a 13-year-old kid,” Boessenecker told Business Insider. “I think that’s really remarkable.”
Ironically, Boessenecker used to comb the same beach looking for fossils. “I’ve been going there since I was 15, so Forrest got luckier than I did,” he said.
Toothless not tuskless
Between graduate school and earning his Ph.D., Boessenecker took over a decade to free the skull, but as he finally started to remove the hard sandstone surrounding it, he realized there were no sockets in its jaw for teeth, just a place for its upper tusks.
The lack of teeth was a clear sign that the skull didn’t belong to modern walruses, since modern species have teeth, which they use to communicate by clacking together but not to eat with.
Boessenecker determined that the skull belonged to the genus Valenictus — the closest extinct relative to living walruses.
But because the new skull was older and larger than other Valenictus species and had some physiological differences, Boessenecker suspected it was an unknown species.
He promised to name it after Sheperd.
The smooth surface is part of the walrus skull emerging from the rock.
“That’s obviously such a huge accomplishment for any fossil collector to be able to not just find a cool fossil, but to be able to find a fossil that really contributes to our understanding in a big new way,” Sheperd said.
The walruses of California
Millions of years ago, over a dozen walrus species roamed the planet. Today, only two subspecies are left, “which tells us something weird has happened with walruses in the past couple million years,” Boessenecker said.
Ancient walruses used to live in California, which likely had a similar climate 5 million years ago as it does now, Boessenecker said. That’s wildly different from the frigid Arctic temperatures today’s walruses prefer.
Moreover, between 2 million and 7 million years ago something happened to the West Coast that caused a lot of species to disappear.
Boessenecker created a piece of artwork showing Valenictus swimming in a kelp forest.
“There’s all sorts of weirdos that you find in rocks” in California from that time, Boessenecker said. In addition to walruses, there were odd-looking marine mammals, unusual extinct birds, and strange fish.
“We had giant bony-toothed birds flying around up until about 2 million years ago or so,” he said. A lot of Valenictus’ bizarre companions started disappearing around the same time.
“So what happened on the West Coast?” Boessenecker posed. “Why did we have this incredible species or faunal turnover?”
Scientists think it has to do with a dramatic change in the geography of the California coastline that occurred around 3 or 4 million years ago, he said.
Before the change, the Los Angeles Basin and southern San Joaquin Valley were shallow marine bays that made perfect foraging grounds for walruses and other marine mammals.
However, changes in climate and the emergence of the Sierra Mountains both contributed to the loss of those marine bays and the walruses’ food supply, Boessenecker said.
“I like to focus on these sorts of young fossils because it gives us a little bit of perspective on what we still have on the California coastline,” Boessenecker said. “It’s an incredible ecosystem, and it’s changed quite a bit in the past few million years.”