Walruses these days are mostly relegated to the North Pole, but a good deal of research on their evolution is happening here, thanks to an ancient fossil discovered 25 years ago at Saddleback Church, which has been named after both the county and the Cal State Fullerton mascot.
The fossil, named Titanotaria Orangensis, is about 10 feet long, weighs about 1,200 pounds and is 6 to 7 million years old.
“This is a new walrus and it’s very exciting,” said Cal State Fullerton professor James Parham, who co-authored a paper on the discovery with three students.
It was discovered in 1993 where Saddleback Church is Monday in Lake Forest, but more recently came under the review of the Cal State Fullerton scholars.
Cal State Fullerton geology alumnus Isaac Magallanes continued his work on a paper regarding the fossil even after he earned his bachelor’s degree last year, Parham said.
Magallanes co-authored an essay, which was published on Oct. 12, with Parham and Cal State Fullerton alumnus Gabriel-Philip Santos and Jorge Velez-Juarbe, a former postdoctoral scholar at the university.
“This paper was led by an undergraduate researcher, which is very unusual,” Parham said. “We got him working on it early in his career. Even when he went on to graduate school… he would come back to visit family (in Santa Ana) and work on this.”
The team’s research detailed the evolution of walruses, which once proliferated widely in various species in Orange County, but more recently have been confined to the North Pole.
The fossil was found 25 years ago, but wasn’t studied until recent years, which isn’t unusual in the paleontology field, Parham said.
“It was kind of known about, but had never been studied,” he said. “One of the nice things about this specimen is it is one of the most complete walrus fossils ever discovered.”
Titanotaria Orangensis did not have the tusks typical of walruses now. Walruses developed the tusks over time due to living in shallow seas, where they would use the tusks to fish for clams. Now the only shallow waters advantageous to walruses are in the Antarctic on ice floes, Parham said.
“The walrus (today) is definitely highly endangered, and one of the main threats to it is climate change,” Parham said.
“We have this one great lineage clinging on to the North Pole,” Parham said, adding walruses can be traced back to 20 million years ago. “It’s a very long and rich history.”
The fossils found in the so-called Oso Member near Lake Forest and Mission Viejo reveal an Orange County populated by a wide variety of “terrestrial and marine animals,” Parham said.
“We have walruses, sharks, whales, dolphins and we also have horses and crocodiles,” Parham said. “Crocodiles and walruses living together in Orange County — it kind of blows your mind.”
Parham predicted more revelations about walruses in the coming years as scientists sift through the fossils found in Orange County.