Saddleback’s secret treasure offers a Jurassic Park opportunity

Chris Buchen, a geologist currently working on his master’s degree at CSU Fullerton, has been scraping away at these seal bones for over six months. (Claire Cote)

Many have driven by the small out-building located on the Saddleback College campus at the west corner of College Drive and Marguerite Parkway without noticing its existence. Little did they know that this building is the home to a laboratory dedicated to examining the history of the area, where a small group of students learn to extract, clean and curate fossils from an ancient time period when South Orange County was covered by a warm, shallow sea full of marine life. This building houses the college’s paleontology lab.

It is a quiet and individualistic workshop where one can listen to their iPod while uncovering what life was like millions of years ago.

“It is a great stress reliever,” said Claire McKay, 22, biology.

The public’s curiosity with the field of anthropology was first peaked when Steven Spielberg introduced Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1981. But in 1993, when Spielberg’s blockbuster movie “Jurassic Park” was released, the concept of cloning ancient creatures from dormant DNA sparked intrigue in paleontology, a similar scientific field of study. Paleontology is the study of the forms of life existing in prehistoric or geologic times, as represented by the fossils of plants, animals, and other organisms.

Answers to questions about South County’s history are embedded in the hundreds of thousands of specimens of fossilized marine vertebrates, shellfish and some land animals that make the area a hunting ground for paleontologists, archaeologists and other scientists.

Saddleback’s fossil preparation workshop was established in 1997 as the result of an agreement between the City of Mission Viejo and Saddleback College. The city would lend the college fossils encased in plaster, called jackets, obtained from various local excavations, and the college would train the students to clean and identify the fossils.

“The artifacts we have here are from Area 12, which is an upcoming housing development on the corner of Alicia and Olympiad here in Mission Viejo,” said Jim Repka, department chair of earth and ocean sciences. “They’re on loan to us from the city, so to speak.”

“Most of the bones we have in here range from 10 to 15 million years old,” Repka added.

The lab is supervised by Sarah Siren, a paleontologist from the San Diego Natural History Museum. She is assisted by paleontologist Mark Roeder.

In 2001, Siren was hired to oversee the lab. She, along with Lawrence Barnes, an expert in vertebrate paleontology from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, worked with the students training them in the skills necessary to preserve and identify the extracted fossils.

The course is offered through Saddleback’s geology department as a Special Studies Workshop and is kept small as the training requires individualized attention. Many of the uncovered species are of high scientific value and advanced students prepare these specimens for museum display.

Anthony Huntley, chairman of the biology department, in collaboration with Barnes, co-authored a peer-reviewed scientific journal about one of the workshop’s most notable achievements regarding identification of a new species of dolphin.

In 1994, the fully-intact nine-foot skull of a 5-million-year old whale was discovered during the construction of St. Timothy’s Catholic Church in Laguna Niguel. The paleontologist in charge of the excavation was Peter Borella, a geology instructor and registered paleontologist at Saddleback.

Dubbed “Tiny Tim”, the whale’s skull, encased in plaster and weighing two tons, was transported to Saddleback. Two-thirds of the whale’s original skeleton was excavated and, in pieces, moved to the campus where its cleaning and preparation became a student project. The college later donated some of the fossils to the Outdoor Education and Field Study Program at Trabuco Elementary School in Trabuco Canyon.

After this discovery, the City of Mission Viejo contacted Saddleback College.

“The City had many jacketed fossils sitting in storage, some deteriorating, so the college arranged to have them transported to the campus,” said Borella. “Here, students could prepare them for identification.”

Paleontologist Marion Kearin and lab assistant Mary Amelotte used this sample to inaugurate the paleontology lab at Saddleback, and to assist Borella and the students with the fossil preparation.

“Mary and Marion, along with Larry Barnes and Tony Huntley, who’s an excellent vertebrate biologist, took this to the next level,” Borella said.

In the near future, Saddleback archeology instructor Renee Garcia will be assisting with the designing and instruction in the lab. The workshop is offered on Tuesday evenings at 6 p.m. in the paleontology laboratory.