Sperm whale-Day 2

On Saturday, a combination of fundraising field trips to Carmel Church and bad weather kept us off the river. Early Sunday morning we were back on site on the Rappahannock to continue excavating the sperm whale that Jeff Sparks discovered last week. The weather was pretty good throughout the day, although the high tide in the morning did slow us down a little for the first few hours (you can see Jeff’s boat and the water edge in the background) (photos by Tim Dooley):

One additional note for would-be collectors: we were digging at this site with the permission of the landowners. Make sure you respect property rights and don’t tresspass or collect fossils illegally.

By around 1:00 pm we had uncovered both dentaries (the lower jaws), and could begin making plaster jackets. Here is the right dentary, almost ready:

Note the small light brown objects in the wall, just above my arm; those are more teeth. An hour later, the right dentary was jacketed and ready for removal. The left dentary is visible just to the left, and the aluminum foil is covering the additional teeth.

By 4:00 pm the second dentary was jacketed. That’s what’s sitting behind me, while I work on removing additional teeth (some people have questioned whether or not I actually do any work on the trips, as opposed to just ordering volunteers and interns around):

By Sunday evening, we had recovered all the remains, including both dentaries, various possible cranial fragments and unidentified bones, and a large number of isolated teeth, some of which are shown here wrapped and ready to load in the boat:

For some reason, the teeth seem to frequently fall out of the sockets in sperm whales, even though in many cases (including this one) they have massive roots.

I’ll be transporting this specimen back to VMNH later this week, and probably moving at least part of it straight into the lab. We should have more photos of prepared teeth and bones over the next several weeks.

A final big thanks to our excavating crew of Jeff Sparks, Jim Patzer, Tim Dooley, and Carter Harrison.

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15 Responses to Sperm whale-Day 2

  1. Betsy says:

    Looks like Jeff’s done it again…what an awesome find! Can’t wait to see the prepped specimen!

  2. Alton Dooley says:

    I also need to thank Todd McDonald, Travis Sparks, and Nathan Sparks, who all helped Jeff remove the first jacket earlier this week, but who weren’t able to join us this weekend.

  3. Don says:

    Jeff, awesome find dude. You just need to get a bigger motor on the boat. 😉 And get us back out on the Pax.

  4. Doug says:

    See, this why i love this blog (why it’s so much better MOR’s). It so vividly and graphically illustrates how paleontologists do their work. It isn’t just a shot of the dig site, but various stages of excavation. And it is described in detail by the guy who does it. It will be interesting to see this whale fosssil when it’s freed from the rock.

  5. Alton Dooley says:

    Thanks for the endorsement, Doug–we aim to please.

    Funny you should mention Jeff’s motor, Don. Carter’s boat is larger, and has a much bigger motor, so we removed the dentary jackets in his boat. When Jeff took the first jacket out, he removed it in his boat (Carter and I weren’t there yet). That was a much bigger jacket, and when I saw it I was amazed (and impressed) that he was able to get it into his boat at all.

  6. Don says:

    Jeff and I went out on the Pax when he first got it. It gets you where you need to go, but it could use a bit more oomph. Mind you, I dont have one myself, but its fun ribbing him about it.

    And I have to agree, I love this blog.

  7. Doug says:

    You’re welcome, “Butch”. And about that sperm whale skull I showed you, here is the response:

    “The specimen that you refer to has been on exhibit at the Museum for
    quite some time. The specimen was excavated from the Great Lakes Carbon
    Company diatomaceous earth mine on Rancho San Julian in 1952. While the
    mandibles and rostrum of this specimen were relatively intact, the
    cranium of the skull was not. Much of the top and back portions of the
    cranium have been reconstructed. Apparently the reconstruction is not
    anatomically correct based on other specimens of this particular species
    of toothed whale that have been recovered since this specimen was
    prepared. This is apparently a fossil sperm whale related to
    Brygmophyseter shigensis. Like most fossil sperm whales, the specimen
    on exhibit at the Museum has functional upper teeth along with
    mandibular teeth. According to Dr. Ed Mitchell, the braincase and the
    top of the rostrum of this specimen was erroneously reconstructed with a
    generous application of plaster.”

    – Paul Collins
    Curator of Vertebrate Zoology
    Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

  8. Alton Dooley says:

    As I suspected. Although, if the zygomatic processes are real, I’d put it closer to Zygophyseter than to Brygmophyseter (if the zygomatic processes are modeled, then all bets are off!)

    Thanks, Doug and Dr. Collins.

  9. Alton Dooley says:

    The museum has a fantastic boat, that is unfortunately not running at the moment–a surplus 18-foot US Navy utility boat, designed for the open ocean and with a 90-hp motor. We can put a tremendous amount of gear and fossil in that boat, and it’s stable enough for a relative novice like me to operate it. Even so, Paul Murdoch and I came close to swamping it once, removing a whale skull on the Potomac River several years ago.

  10. Don says:

    LOL Sounds to me like you could use a boating class or two. 😉

  11. Alton Dooley says:

    Trial by fire (or water)–no better teacher!

  12. Markus says:

    I would really like to know how the cranial basin for the spermaceti organ looked at this whale. Zygophyseter´s spermaceti organ covered only the posterior part of the rostrum, but the snout was still free, but the form with more massive Jaws like Hoplocetus ritzi or Brygmophyseter had probably bigger spermaceti organs which covered the complete snout, perhaps comparable to Kogia or even smaller. I think this is really important, because it causes a huge difference in the overall view of the animal.
    Some years ago that it turned out just very recently that sperm whales are able to regrow teeth for their whole life, similar to reptiles, what would be really unique for mammals. This could be an explanation for the loose sockets of the teeth.

  13. Alton Dooley says:

    Brygmophyseter and Zygophyseter have demonstrated that what used to be called “Scaldicetus”-type teeth are in fact found in a variety of sperm whales with very different cranial morphologies. There are also several undescribed sperm whales that have similar teeth, and crania that are not similar to Brygmophyseter nor to Zygophyseter. I doubt that we recovered enough from the Rappahannock whale to tell where it’s going to fit among this group. But, as you mentioned, Markus, the occlusal wear indicates that there were upper teeth. Moreover, all the sperm whales so far found with the large enamel-crowned teeth have upper teeth (no matter what their skulls look like.)

  14. Markus says:

    This is really interesting. Can you tell me how the skulls of this other big-toothed sperm whales looked? Zygophyseter was surely very strange in its overall appearance, and looked perhaps more like a killer-version of a Baird´s Beaked whale. I would really love to make a life-reconstruction of Brygmophyseter or a similar species, but without good photos or drawings of the skull, especially dorsal views, this is really hard. For my model of Mesoplodon densirostris I had very good pictures of sagital and dorsal views, and I think the model is okay: http://bestiarium.kryptozoologie.net/artikel/blainville-schnabelwal-mesoplodon-densirostris/

  15. Alton Dooley says:

    I like the Mesoplodon model!

    Hopefully some of these sperm whales will be described in the next year or so (I especially hope so since I’m working on one of them.)

    I’m going to try to get a new post up later today.

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