During Dino Day, I had a small army of volunteers prepping various materials in the lab, including the bagged material from last August’s Carmel Church excavation. During the course of the day they managed to get through several bags of material, which as usual were mostly shark teeth. Everything was laid out to dry, and yesterday I finally had a chance to look at the material.
I was amazed to see the tooth shown at the top mixed in with the other remains. This is a small tooth with an enormous, swollen, laterally compressed root. There is actually a tiny enamel crown, visible in this closeup:
This appears to be a lower anterior tooth from a beaked whale, from the family Ziphiidae. These are among the rarest of the rare; only two possible ziphiids have been reported from Virginia (Whitmore and Kaltenbach, 2008), and two additional specimens from Maryland, although one of these is a cast of a privately-held specimen (Fuller and Godfrey, 2007). Whitmore and Kaltenbach (2008) also reported a total of 15 fragments from Lee Creek Mine. All the Lee Creek specimens are Pliocene; the two from Maryland are Miocene, and the Virginia specimens could be anywhere from middle Miocene to late Pliocene. Only two of the Lee Creek specimens included anterior teeth, as shown below (Whitmore and Kaltenbach, 2008, Figs. 43 and 44):
While these teeth have some features with the Carmel Church tooth, they aren’t particularly close matches (nor is “b” above, a modern specimen of Tasmacetus shepherdi). In fact, it seems that very few anterior teeth from beaked whales have ever been found, and this may be the first one from the middle Miocene. There was a beaked whale recently described from Peru, Nazcacetus urbinai, that was from the same time period as Carmel Church and had enlarged anterior teeth, but the teeth themselves were not preserved (Lambert et al., 2009). The socket for the anterior tooth in Nazcacetus is about the same size as the root of the Carmel Church tooth. The Nazcacetus type is shown below, before it was completely prepared:
With such limited material for comparison, it will be difficult or impossible to determine which species this tooth represents. Even so, it’s an exciting and surprising discovery for Carmel Church. It also shows promise for the material we’ve already collected, since better than 80% of the material recovered from Carmel Church so far has not yet been prepared or closely examined.