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FOSSILS REVEAL PREHISTORIC VALLEY.

Byline: Troy Anderson Staff Writer

Beneath the asphalt crust of today's San Fernando Valley lies newly discovered fossil evidence of a lost world where ground sloths and mammoths roamed 50,000 years ago alongside native camels.

Fossils uncovered during Metro Red Line subway construction also have provided a glimpse of a Valley once surrounded by giant redwood trees, and fish species that scientists never knew existed.

And then a great flood hit 9,000 years ago, washing along the Los Angeles River near Universal City and changing the landscape dramatically, researchers said Tuesday.

These are just a few of the most significant findings unearthed by a team of 28 scientists during construction of the subway from downtown Los Angeles to the Valley, according to a newly released report.

Digging through time and dirt, the scientists found more than 2,000 fossils, some providing the first record of animals' existence, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority report says.

``It's fascinating that as we go about our daily lives to think that only 50 to 100 feet below us is an entirely lost world,'' MTA spokesman Gary Wosk said. ``If it wasn't for this subway project, how long would it have taken to unearth this information?''

In the Valley, paleontologists found bone and teeth of an extinct Harlans' ground sloth, an Ice Age mammoth, western camel, and ancient and longhorn bison.

They also found pollens that prove the existence back then of incense cedar and coastal redwoods in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains.

``It will probably surprise people that redwoods came as far south as the Santa Monica Mountains some 40,000 years ago,'' said David P. Whistler, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

New finds of inland fish

Perhaps most significant was the discovery of fish fossils including 64 extinct species of marine fish, 14 in the Valley and 39 new to science.

Scientists say it is highly important in their understanding of Southern California's history.

``At Universal City, we found fossilized deep water fish, maybe 12 million years old, that are new to science,'' said Bruce Lander who led the team of 28 scientists.

What separates these fossilized fish from others is that these were from deep water but found inland.

``In Southern California, there are a lot of rocks where we find fish deposits, but those are coastal fish,'' said Gary Takeuchi, curatorial assistant at the museum. ``These were deep water fish that lived at 4,000 to 5,000 feet of water. At that time, the Los Angeles Basin was under 5,000 feet of water.''

Many fossils are the first or oldest on record of the species.

``To us, it's another piece of the great puzzle,'' said Whistler, who served as a consulting paleontologist for the Steven Spielberg blockbuster ``Jurassic Park.''

``We are tentatively trying to put together the story of what life used to be here.''

Surprisingly, the western camels found in the Valley are actually native to North America.

``They go back almost 50 million years,'' said Lander, president of Altadena-based Paleo Environmental Associates. ``They went extinct here, but before they did they spread to other areas of the world.''

Digging through time

While tunneling and digging the subway from 1987 to 2000, paleontologists found more than 2,000 fossils at 11 Red Line stations, covering a period of some 16.5 million years ago to less than 10,000 years ago.

The stations stretch from Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue to Lankershim and Chandler boulevards in North Hollywood, a distance of 10.9 miles.

Paleontologists found the tusk of an Ice Age elephant, possibly a Columbian mammoth, bones and teeth of a towering American mastodon, wood and pollen from incense cedar and Mormon tea plants and fossils of birds, shrews, cottontails, gophers and mice.

``This is one of the most important projects we've had in terms of providing new information and data to the scientific community,'' Lander said. ``Our data will lead to a number of new publications.''

It will take years for scientists to fully understand the significance of their findings.

``We came up with continual surprises both in terms of the number and variety of fossils,'' MTA Environmental Compliance Manager Jim Sowell said. ``We found rare fossils, the newest and oldest, and in some cases both, of species that are extinct or brand new to science.''

Federal grants paid for the $2 million report.

The great Valley flood

A swath of fossilized logs near Universal City provides proof of a great flood in the Valley 9,000 years ago.

The logs were oriented in a southwesterly direction, presumably as a result of a major flood along the ancestral Los Angeles River. The ends of the logs were subsequently truncated by a later flood.

``The floor apparently swept up a number of trees that were uncovered when the station at Universal City was excavated,'' Lander said. ``We found them at a depth of 60 to 65 feet.''

Paleontologists said it was a flood limited to the Valley, but they didn't rule out the possibility that one day the Los Angeles Basin could be covered in water again and future generations would find our civilization.

``Certainly, Los Angeles has been below water on more than one occasion, but as to whether it will happen again, that is for others to determine.''

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) This fossil record of a deep water fish, which existed millions of years ago, shows part of the Los Angeles basin was under 5,000 feet of water.

(2) Scientists David Whistler, Bruce Lander and Gary Takeuchi stand next to some of the more than 2,000 fossils unearthed in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway dig.

Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 13, 2000
Words:961
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