Spectacular new whale

I’ve had one of those crazy weeks that has delayed posting a new entry, but hopefully today’s post will make up for it. A few days ago volunteer Jeff Sparks informed me that he had found a fossil whale eroding out of a cliff on the Rappahannock River, and that it appeared to be a sperm whale. This grabbed my attention, because sperm whales are one of the rarest of all whale fossils; fewer than 20 fossil skulls (of all species) are known worldwide. Moreover, this seemed to be a sperm whale that had large teeth with enamel crowns (modern sperm whales don’t have enamel). These are rare even by sperm whale standards.This morning, Tim, volunteer Carter Harrison, and I met Jeff (seen above with his discovery) at a boat ramp and cruised up the rather choppy Rappahannock to the site. Jeff’s identification was spot-on, and the remains were better than I had expected. It appears that at least the lower jaws and part of the skull are preserved, as well as a large number of teeth. Three of these teeth are visible in the photo at the top, and here is one after excavation:

This tooth is especially unusual because of the strange wear pattern. Half of the enamel crown (on the right) has been worn away, and there is a deep groove cutting across the root. I believe this groove was worn by the opposing tooth in the other jaw rubbing against it.

I’ll post more updates about this whale in the coming days.

This entry was posted in Chesapeake Group, Rappahannock River sperm whale and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Spectacular new whale

  1. Grenda says:


  2. Doug says:

    Cool. 20 skulls worldwide, eh? Perhaps you can identify this skull. I have been staring at it for 3 or 4 years now. The sign says “giant toothed whale” and then the picture behind it says “primitive sperm whale”. What do you think?

  3. Alton Dooley says:

    Doug, certain portions of the Santa Barbara skull look like sperm whale, but the top of the skull is all wrong–by any chance, is the top of the skull modeled out of plaster and painted to match the bone?

    The lower jaw looks pretty sperm whale-like. If it really is a sperm whale, there’s a good chance it’s related to Zygophyseter, a sperm whale described from Europe a couple of years ago (I don’t have the reference with me at the moment). Zygophyseter is unique among sperm whales in having a very long zygomatic process of the squamosal (fancy for cheek bone), which the Santa Barbara specimen appears to have.

  4. Doug says:

    I am not sure. If it is modeled, it’s some of the best i have ever seen, because i can’t tell what’s fake. I have sent an email inquiry to the museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology. Let’s se if we get a response.

  5. Markus says:

    Those fossil sperm whales are really highly interesting, especially those true predatory forms. Some time ago I contacted Lawrence Barnes to find out more information about this special skull from which I found only photos. It came out that it was found at Bakersfield, Kern County and is still not scientifically described. It was related to Brygmophyseter shigensis, a species with a very robust rostrum and big teeth in both lower and upper jaw. I don´t know if its rostrum was only partially covered with the spermaceti organ as in Zygophyseter which had still a “free” beak and compared with Brygmophyseter also more narrow and lesser robust jaws, as well as a greater number of teeth.
    There was also another species, Hoplocetus ritzi, whose remains were found in north-Germany. I don´t have the paper and know only a single photo which shows a partial rostrum which looks similar to those of Brygmophyseter. The wear on its teeth is very similar to those of orcas, what could also be linked to predation on other marine tetrapods.
    The teeth on the photo is really interesting, not only cause of the size, but also because the abrasion is doubtless caused by a counter-tooth, what means that this guy had functional teeth in both jaws and not only in the lower jaw. The root seems also to be very long and strong, what would indicate adaptions against strong physical loads, possibly caused by big prey.
    Some time ago I blogged about Zygophyseter and made also a reconstruction drawing:
    It looks really strange and completely different from any living cetacean.
    The small sperm whale Aulophyseter in contrast looked perhaps more like a modern but still not fullgrown Physeter macrocephalus:

  6. Markus says:

    And I just forgot to mentioned that Lawrence Barnes told me that the skull of the “giant toothed whale” was actually restored, but without any true correlation of sperm whale anatomy.

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