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Paleontology Research

Recent Projects and Discoveries

It's a Mammal's World

In spring 2022, our Paleontologists formally described two new fossil species from our collection. The first, a 120,000-year-old extinct capybara, was discovered in 1994 during construction of a shopping center in eastern Oceanside. The second was a cat-like sabertooth predator from about 42 million years ago, and found during road construction near College Boulevard in Oceanside. These specimens from two different ends of the Age of Mammals, illustrate the incredible diversity of the San Diego region's fossil record.

An Invaluable Volunteer

Since 2018, Paleontology Volunteer Gabriel Vogeli has been spearheading a long-term project to create 3D images of our fossils using a process called photogrammetry. To date, Gabriel has created 3D models of more than 1000 fossils, many of which can be seen here. Now fully retired, this molecular biologist-turned-paleontologist is pursuing his interests in the historical sciences of geology and paleontology.

San Diego Underwater

In 2021, Museum Paleontologists discovered thousands of small, oceanic fossils during pipeline construction right in our own neighborhood—Balboa Park! There were fossil scallops and oyster shells, crabs, sea urchins, and bryozoans, as well as bones from sharks, rays and bony fish. This marine fossil deposit was about 120-170 feet above modern sea level, indicating these animals lived during a much warmer time in Earth's history, when major ice sheets were non-existent and the ocean had much more water in it.

Exploring Santa Cruz Island

In 2021, our Paleontologists mounted an exploratory expedition to the US Channel Islands. This trip built on a previous visit by our team several years prior, with the goal of finding more evidence of both ancient and relatively modern animal life. We found a huge trove of fossils! Within moments of arriving to one site, we found what will be a very important mammal fossil (once described), and the discoveries just kept coming. We ended up adding more mammal and bird material to our species list (including sea otter), as well as fish, sharks, and crabs.

Paleontology News

Whales are magnificent creatures, full of mystery and wonder… and one mystery that has puzzled scientists, including our very own Curator of Paleontology Dr. Tom Demèrè, for decades is how and when the evolution from teeth to baleen occurred in of the ancestors of today’s filter-feeding whales (e.g., blue, fin, humpback, right, and gray whales). Read more.

In February 2017, the Museum received word that a manuscript written by staff paleontologists and outside colleagues about the discovery of mastodon fossils showing signs of human activity had been accepted for publication in the scientific journal Nature. As expected, the April 27 publication and announcement garnered widespread media coverage and stirred dialog within the scientific community. Some have been supportive and consider the hypothesis compelling and one that should not be ruled out. Others have dismissed it as questionable science or outlined why various interpretations of evidence are wrong.  Read more.

Finding dinosaur fossils is not something even veteran paleontologists experience every day. Our crews find fossils on about half of the job sites they work, but they simply don’t encounter many dinosaurs here in southern California. It’s not to say these beasts didn’t roam the area—surely they did—but the circumstances for the preservation of their remains were not ideal here. Read more.

It’s not every day that a new species of porpoise is introduced to the scientific world. However, that’s what happened when a team of paleontologists, including representatives from the San Diego Natural History Museum, discovered the fossil remains of a 3 million year old animal with a unique skull anatomy not represented in any living or fossil dolphin or porpoise.   Read more.

Selected Publications

Bisconti, M., Pellegrino, L., Carnevale, G. The chronology of mysticete diversification (Mammalia, Cetacea, Mysticeti): Body size, morphological evolution and global change. April 2022. Earth-Science Reviews.

Park, T., Ekdale, EG., Racicot, RA., Marx, FG. Testing for Convergent Evolution in Baleen Whale Cochleae. Feb. 2023. Convergent Evolution: Animal Form and Function.

Poust, AW., Holroyd, PA., Deméré, TA. An Eocene sea turtle from the eastern North Pacific fills a Paleogene gap. May 2023. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.

Zack, S., Poust, AW., Wagner, H. Diegoaelurus, a New Machaeroidine (Oxyaenidae) from the Santiago Formation (Late Uintan) of Southern California and the Relationships of Machaeroidinae, the Oldest Group of Sabertooth Mammals. March 2022. PeerJ.

Holen, SR., Deméré, TA., Fisher, DC., Fullagar, R., Paces, JB., Jefferson, GT. A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA. April 2017. Nature.

Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

Fossils of our Region