A 13-year-old found a 5-million-year-old fossil, and now there's a new species of walrus named in his honor

A 13-year-old fossil enthusiast found a walrus skull in a boulder in northern California in 2011. Eleven years later, a paleontologist has named the formerly unknown extinct species after him.


Finding fossils

In 2011, a 13-year-old fossil hunter on a beach near bluffs in Santa Cruz, California, happened across the find of a lifetime: the complete skull of an unknown 5-million-year-old walrus species encased in a giant boulder.

His discovery has now led to the identification of that ancient species of walrus, which scientists named after the 13-year-old in his honor in a recent paper published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

An enthusiast since the age of 9, Forrest Sheperd would go hunting two to three times a week, finding shells, shark teeth, and whale bones. "I was just absolutely on fire and ecstatic about finding fossils," he told Business Insider.

Toothless not tuskless

Between graduate school and earning his doctorate, Boessenecker took more than a decade to free the skull, but as he finally started to remove the hard sandstone surrounding it, he realized there were no sockets in its jaw for teeth, just a place for its upper tusks.

The lack of teeth was a clear sign the skull didn't belong to modern walruses since modern species have teeth, which they use to communicate by clacking together but not to eat with.

Boessenecker determined the skull belonged to the genus Valenictus — the closest extinct relative to living walruses. But because the new skull was older and larger than other Valenictus species and had some physiological differences, Boessenecker suspected it was an unknown species. He promised to name it after Sheperd.

The walruses of California

Millions of years ago, more than a dozen walrus species roamed the planet. Today, only two subspecies are left, "which tells us something weird has happened with walruses in the past couple million years," Boessenecker said.

Ancient walruses used to live in California, which probably had a similar climate 5 million years ago to what it has now, Boessenecker said. That's wildly different from the frigid Arctic temperatures today's walruses prefer.

"We had giant bony-toothed birds flying around up until about 2 million years ago or so," he said. A lot of Valenictus' bizarre companions started disappearing around the same time. "So what happened on the west coast?" Boessenecker posed. "Why did we have this incredible species or faunal turnover?"