Saturday, January 31, 2004

SOLOMONS, Md. (AP) — Heavy erosion by Hurricane Isabel pounding on the cliffs that line St. Mary’s River uncovered the fossilized skull of what paleontologists say was a whale that swam in the area 8 million years ago.

The discovery of the complete skull could help scientists fill a gap in their knowledge of the evolution of Atlantic Ocean whales during the warm Miocene epoch millions of years ago.

“It [the whale] occurs in a 3 million-year block of time where we know very little about the whales that were here,” said Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology for the Calvert Marine Museum.

The remains were displayed Thursday at the museum, where scientists are carefully chipping away the sediment around the 5-foot skull with hopes of one day putting it on display.

The cliffs of Southern Maryland offer a rich source of marine fossils, including thousands of prehistoric shark teeth and whale bones that are uncovered by erosion.

Jeff DiMeglio and his girlfriend were out scouring the area for shark teeth six days after Isabel swept through the region, when they came across what Mr. DiMeglio, an experienced fossil hunter, recognized as the rib of a whale. He covered the fossil and contacted the museum.

Mr. Godfrey believes the 18-foot whale lived at a time when warm temperatures spread across the Atlantic Ocean, inland across the East Coast covering the Chesapeake Bay and parts of the Washington region.

It was found in an area where the water would have been shallow, different from the deep-water sediments where most whale fossils are found in the area.

Mr. Godfrey thinks it was a baleen whale, meaning it would gulp water and then force it out across strainer plates in its mouth, trapping tiny animals and plants for food. He is not sure if it was an ancestor of modern baleen whales, like the humpback, or part of an extinct line of whales.

Scientists were unable to locate the entire spine of the whale but did recover some vertebrae, a neck bone, a fin and a shoulder blade along with the skull.

There are a few clues to how it may have died. Teeth marks score part of the skeleton, and the fossilized teeth of giant mako and cow sharks were found among the bones. The sharks could have killed the whale or fed on its remains.

To free the fossil from the shoreline, scientists swathed it in burlap and plaster of Paris, creating a hard cast.

The museum then turned to the Patuxent Naval Air Station for help. A search-and-rescue team from the base rappelled from a helicopter, attached the fossil to a cable and flew it to a nearby landing site.

“We picked it up, and off we went,” said Chief Petty Officer Robert Mirabal, who rappelled down to hook onto the fossil.

Mr. Godfrey said he has been in contact with possible funders for an exhibit at the museum, but it will be several months before the fossil is entirely clean.

While most Southern Marylanders were dismayed by the erosion from Isabel, Mr. Godfrey said it was a blessing in disguise.

“There is some angst watching the cliffs disappear, but it’s great for paleontology,” he said.

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