Whale of a find

Pepper O’Shaughnessy found this fossilized whale brain in the bank of a creek running through her family’s property in southern San Luis Obispo County.
Pepper O’Shaughnessy found this fossilized whale brain in the bank of a creek running through her family’s property in southern San Luis Obispo County. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Nine years ago Pepper O’Shaughnessy was exploring a creek that runs through her family’s rural property in southern San Luis Obispo County when she saw something protruding from a sandy bank.

When she pulled the strange-looking object from the sand, she was holding in her hands something that, until recently, science did not even know existed — a fossilized whale brain. Paleontologists with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County call the find amazing.

Even more amazing is the fact that it is one of two fossilized whale brains that have been found in San Luis Obispo County and only in this county. The other was found some 70 years ago near Paso Robles.

“This is the only time in history that we have had the opportunity to look at brains of animals that lived millions of years ago and to make comparisons with their closest living relatives,” said Howell Thomas, a senior artifact preparer at the museum.

Flash back to 1998.

O’Shaughnessy’s niece Tara Olson was driving a car full of friends back from a B-52s concert at the Mid-State Fair.

“I fell asleep at the wheel while driving 65 miles per hour,” Olson, now 30, recalls.

The SUV rolled over several times, and Olson received a serious brain injury. Doctors thought she would be permanently paralyzed and need a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

But Olson was able to walk again after three weeks of therapy at the Brucker Biofeedback Center in Miami. She uses a cane to walk and has some difficulty speaking, but her recovery has been remarkable.

“Tara has done unbelievably well,” said Dr. Rita Gugel, director of the Brucker Center. “She’s done a wonderful job, and so much of it is her attitude and tenacity.”

Now, the family wants to take these two unbelievable brain-related events — Tara’s recovery and the discovery of the whale brain — and combine them into something of lasting value to society.

They are looking for a philanthropic person or organization to buy the whale brain and donate it to a museum. The family would then take the money they get for the fossil and open a branch of the Brucker Center in San Luis Obispo County so that more people with neurological damage can be helped.

“You can take a bad thing and turn it into a positive result,” Olson said.

By any measure, the family’s goal is a lofty one.

Peaches Olson is Tara’s mother and O’Shaughnessy’s twin sister. She is a volunteer at French Hospital’s Hearst Cancer Research Center and estimates that to fully fund the neurological center would cost $15 million.That’s more money than has ever been paid for a paleontological artifact. Sue, the most extensive and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever found, fetched a record $8.36 million in 1997.

“Even if we get $1 million, it at least gets the ball rolling,” Peaches Olson said.

But the family is hoping that the rarity of the specimen will increase its value. There are lots of T-rex fossils, but there are only two known fossilized whale brains, and the Olsons’ specimen is the most complete.

The first fossilized whale brain was found in the mid-1940s on what is now called the Halter Ranch near Adelaida, said Bob MacGillivray of Templeton, who owns the artifact. Both are 15 million years old and date to the Middle Miocene period, when the ocean covered what is now California as far east as the Sierra Nevadas.

“The Olsons’ is a complete specimen while ours is only a partial but more detailed one,” MacGillivray said.

The MacGillivray specimen is of a toothed whale, while the Olson specimen is of a baleen whale and includes a portion of the back of the whale’s skull. Together, they constitute what paleontologists at the Los Angeles museum are calling “possibly the most unexpected fossils ever unearthed.”

“To have two fossil whale brains from the same geographic area, from the same time period, with the same type of preservation and representing both orders of whales is simply incredible,” states a preliminary report on the scientific value of the specimens, written by Thomas and the museum’s Emeritus Curator Dr. Lawrence Barnes.

Initially, both fossils were thought to be brain coral, a type of coral that looks remarkably similar to a brain. Most fossils are of skeletons, and scientists did not think a mass of soft tissue like a brain could fossilize.

It wasn’t until MacGillivray brought his fossil to the Los Angeles museum nearly four years ago, and the paleontologists had a chance to examine it in detail, that it became clear that this was actually a fossilized brain. It lacks polyps that would identify it as a coral, and its anatomy is very similar to modern whale brains.

“It just couldn’t be anything else,” Thomas said. “It really is what we say it is.”

Six months ago, the Olsons saw a picture of the MacGillivray specimen online and called the museum. Thomas was skeptical, to say the least, that a second fossilized whale brain had been found — skeptical until he had a chance to examine it.

“I went, ‘Holy cow! There really is another one,’ ” he said.

Until now, few people knew of the existence of the two fossil brains, and that has been by design, Thomas said. Finds of this kind are normally first published in scientific journals.

However, the paleontologists want to be in possession of both brains and do more testing before they are ready for a scientific article. They have written a preliminary analysis of the brains in an effort to aid the Olsons’ efforts to sell theirs.

“There’s still more work to be done,” Thomas said. “Given my preferences, we’d hold off until there is scientific publication.”

The MacGillivray specimen remains on loan to the museum. There are no immediate plans to sell it.

“It’s an incredibly valuable family asset,” MacGillivray said. “Fortunately, we don’t need the money.”

The Olson specimen is being held for safekeeping in a locked box at an undisclosed location outside San Luis Obispo County. However, it is still available for examination by prospective buyers.

The exact location of where the Olson artifact was found is being withheld at the family’s request.

The family does not know how much a donor would be willing to pay for the fossil. A specimen that is scientifically priceless does not readily translate to dollars, O’Shaughnessy said.

But they are motivated by the fact that there is a distinct need for a Brucker Center on the West Coast. The existing facility has a waiting list, and many cannot afford the treatment.

“The reason is because it is very expensive for people on the West Coast to come all the way to the East Coast, particularly Miami,” said Gugel, the center’s director.

Treatment typically lasts three weeks. Once the biofeedback work is complete, a physical therapist takes over to continue treatment, Gugel said.

“By gaining function, you definitely gain quality of life,” she said. “If we ever have a center in San Luis Obispo, I certainly hope Tara will have a major part in it because she represents what we are all about.”

The Olsons can be contacted at slofossil@gmail.com.