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Ancient whale skull left in hurricane's wake

An amateur fossil hunter found the 8-million-year-old specimen after Hurricane Isabel hit the Maryland coast.
Jeff DiMeglio talks about the remains of an 8-million-year-old whale fossil Thursday at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Md. DiMeglio discovered the bones in September after Hurricane Isabel eroded the coastline. In the background is the museum's curator of paleontology, Stephen Godfrey, who was called to excavate the fossil.Matt Houston / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Days after Hurricane Isabel ravaged the cliffs lining St. Mary’s River last year, Jeff DiMeglio and his girlfriend went scouring for shark teeth and found what DiMeglio, an experienced fossil hunter, recognized as the rib of a whale.

He immediately covered the findings and contacted a museum. Heavy erosion from the storm had unearthed the complete fossilized skull of what paleontologists say was an 8-million-year-old whale.

The find is important because little is known about whales of that era, said Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology for the Calvert Marine Museum.

The remains were shown to the media Thursday at the museum, where scientists are carefully chipping away sediment around the 5½-foot skull with hopes of one day putting it on display.

Disaster and opportunity
The hurricane that unearthed the fossil last September was Maryland’s worst-ever natural disaster, blamed for dozens of deaths and costing the state and local governments at least $275 million.

Isabel’s surge collapsed bulkheads and seawalls, exposing parts of shoreline.

The embedded ribs of an 8 million year-old Baline Whale fossil at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Md. Thursday, Jan. 29, 2004. The bones were discovered in September after Hurricane Isabel eroded the coastline along the St. Mary's River in St.Mary's County, Md. (AP Photo/ Matt Houston)Matt Houston / AP

Most residents were dismayed by the erosion. Not Godfrey: Southern Maryland’s cliffs that harbor a rich source of marine fossils, including thousands of prehistoric shark teeth and whale bones.

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

To free the fossil from the ground, scientists swathed it in burlap and plaster-of-paris, creating a hard cast, then called on the Patuxent Naval Air Station. A search-and-rescue team rappelled from a helicopter, attached the fossil to a cable and flew it out.

Scientists couldn’t find the spine of the 18-foot whale but did recover some vertebrae, a neck bone, a fin and a shoulder blade.

How the whale lived and died
The fossil was found in an area where the water would have been shallow, and he believes the whale lived at a time when warm temperatures spread across the Atlantic Ocean.

Godfrey thinks it was a baleen whale, but he doesn’t know if it was an ancestor of modern baleen whales, like the humpback, or part of an extinct line.

There are a few clues to how it may have died. Teeth marks score part of the bone, and the fossilized teeth of giant mako and cow sharks also were found among the bones.