So what whale is this?

The bone on the left in the photo above is the right humerus we removed at Carmel Church a few days ago. While we were excavating I remarked to the other diggers that the bone seemed unusually large, especially when compared to the vertebrae associated with it. The bone on the right is the left humerus of Eobalaenoptera harrisoni, the largest whale known from Carmel Church. As you can see, the humerus in Eobalaenoptera is only a little larger than the new specimen (in fact, it’s only about 16% longer).

The vertebrae give a different story. Here is one of the vertebrae we removed (top), and the 20th vertebra from Eobalaenoptera (bottom), which is approximately the same position:

The Eobalaenoptera vertebrae is substantially larger; it’s 30% taller than in the new whale. I’m not sure what taxon the new whale is, but its body proportions seem to be substantially different from Eobalaenoptera, with much larger flippers relative to its body size.

This also shows the potential for useful information in postcranial material, as Doug and I were discussing in the comments last week.

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9 Responses to So what whale is this?

  1. Doug says:

    Very interesting. Only thing i can think of with flippers that big (proportionally, of course) is the modern humpback. I wonder what sort of function large flippers play, when the tail is used for propulsion.

  2. Alton Dooley says:

    I’d have to check this (so take it with a grain of salt), but I think humpbacks may use their large flippers in mating displays (although both sexes have large flippers). Also, I think the length in humpback flippers is from a lengthened radius and ulna, while the humerus is typical of other balaenopterids (I don’t have a reference in front of me at the moment, so I could have it backwards).

    I think a lot of delphinids use their flippers in social touching as well; certainly killer whales and bottlenose dolphins do that.

  3. Doug says:

    Hey “Butch”, can i get your opinion on something? While exploring the Laelaps blog, I came across this comment on a post about Jack Horner:

    “Last semester, Horner spoke to my museum studies class at Montana State University about his paleontology field work and museum work at the Museum of the Rockies. First thing, he held up a piece of bone and asked, “Anyone know what this is?” “Vertebrae,” “dinosaur bone,” “T. rex toe bone,” – various answers. Horner replied, “It’s nothing,” and proceeded to slam the bone onto a table extremely hard, breaking into pieces. “When this bone was found, nobody recorded its location or other relevant data. It’s a worthless piece of bone, because it is out of context.” Then he proceeded to stress the importance of documentation in museum work.”

    What do you think? I personally would never dream of smashing a fossil. You could pay me the economic bailout, and I wouldn’t smash it. I don’t care it it was taken out of context. Use it for display or for teaching purposes, where it doesn’t matter if it gets broken o lost or whatnot. Someone in those comments said that fossil like that should be given to school classrooms, where kids can handle them and maybe even be inspired by them. I am well aware of how much the collateral data means, but it is still a record of past life. I know he was trying to make a point, but actively destroying a fossil like that, to me, makes him look like a fascist.

  4. neil says:

    Large flippers are also thought to increase the maneuverability of humpbacks (Edel and Winn 1978, Woodward et al. 2006). IIRC, humpacks generally consume larger and more active prey (i.e. fish) than other rorquals, and they use bubble nets and other unique techniques to “herd” prey, so it makes sense that they would need to be more maneuverable.

    I look forward to hearing more about the new Carmel Church whale, the Calvert cetacean fauna is ultra-rad.

    Edel, RK and HE Winn 1978. Observations on underwater locomotion and flipper movement of the humpback whale Megaptera. Marine Biology 48 3:279-287. DOI: 10.1007/BF00397155

    Woodward, BL, Winn, JP and FE Fish 2006. Morphological specializations of baleen whales associated with performance and ecological niche. Journal of Morphology 267 11:1284 – 1294. DOI: 10.1002/jmor.10474

  5. Alton Dooley says:


    Jack certainly makes his point dramatically! And I’m sure that the specimen he destroyed had no scientific value.

    It’s certainly true that a fossil’s scientific usefulness is reduced dramatically if collection information isn’t recorded; that’s why the apparently falsified information about a dromaeosaur skeleton has been getting so much attention in the news and various paleo discussion boards lately.

    Occasionally, even if data wasn’t properly recorded (and this happened a LOT in the old days), it’s possible to reconstruct some of the original locality information. Sometimes, there might be a bit of sediment inside the fossil that is identifiable; this happened with a Calvert Formation whale recently (it was published in JVP last year, I think; I don’t have it in front of me).

    There are a few occasions when a specimen is so unique that it has intrinsic scientific value, even if detailed information is not known, for example, if it shows a particular pathology not otherwise known to occur in that taxon.

    Then, of course, specimens often have an educational value at some level, even if there’s no data at all. A brachiopod is identifiable as a brachiopod no matter its age or locality. Undocumented specimens can always be used to teach anatomical features.

  6. Alton Dooley says:


    Thanks for the references; I’ll check them out. Certainly, humpbacks do take a lot of fish. It could also make an interesting proxy for determining diet, since baleen doesn’t fossilize.

    On the other hand, right whales have pretty large flippers, and they feed on crustaceans like euphasids and copepods.

    Ultra-rad is, I think, a prefect way to describe the Calvert!

  7. Alton Dooley says:

    Also, let me apologize (again!) for being a little slow with new posts the last two weeks. The run-up to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting (which starts next Tuesday) is always a busy time, compounded by being in the field. I should have a new post up in the next couple of days, and ext week I’ll be doing a daily update from the conference (just like last year), including my latest take on the Rappahannock sperm whale.

    In the meantime, please continue the whale flipper discussion, or whatever else strikes your fancy.

  8. Doug says:

    I am sure you heard of how Phil Curry used photographs to relocate Brown’s lost tyrannosaur graveyard. And I have seen the importance of scientific value illustrated just fine without breaking anything. I am sure it had no collateral data, but like I said, that’s still no reason to smash it. Then again, never was a horner fan.

    Neil + Alto,
    Interesting ideas. Maneuverability may be a role in the humpback considering it’s hunting behavior. As for right whales, maybe they need the large fins to help maneuver their large, oddly shaped heads.

  9. Alton Dooley says:

    Yes, personally I would not have broken the specimen.

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