New Carmel Church tooth

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.


Fuller, A. J. and S. J. Godfrey, 2007. A late Miocene ziphiid (Messapicetus sp.: Odontoceti: Cetacea) from the St. Marys Formation of Calvert Cliffs, Maryland. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 27:535-540.
Lambert, O., G. Bianucci, and K. Post, 2009. A new beaked whale (Odonticeti, Ziphiidae) from the middle Miocene of Peru. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29:910-922.
Whitmore, F. C. Jr. and L. G. Barnes, 2008. The Herpetocetinae, a new subfamily of extinct baleen whales (Mammalia, Cetacea, Cetotheriidae), in C. E. Ray, D. J. Bohaska, I. A. Koretsky, L. W. Ward, and L. G. Barnes (eds.), Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, IV. Virginia Museum of Natural History Special Publication 14:141-180.
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5 Responses to New Carmel Church tooth

  1. Doug says:

    Whales have some of the weirdest teeth I’ve seen. Most of their teeth seems to be almost all root, with just a small bit projecting out. I wonder if there are any beaked whales from Sharktooth Hill for comparison…

  2. Boesse says:

    Nice specimen! I’ll admit, when I saw the thumbnail on the main page I immediately thought ‘that looks like one of those weird ziphiid apical tusks’.

    RE: Ziphiidae in the California fossil record – the only records mentioned in the literature are from the Capistrano Formation and the Monterey Fm., both in the L.A. basin. Otherwise, there is one additional occurrence I know of, from the Santa Cruz Mudstone at Bolinas, but this specimen may still be in a private collection. Otherwise, all the known records are Late Miocene in age or Tortonian equivalent. And with how good the cetacean record in CA is, that’s probably a realistic figure (at least for some times known by really extensive assemblages).

  3. Alton Dooley says:

    I’m surprised that there are few or none from Sharktooth Hill, considering how many sperm whales there are there. The conventional wisdom is that ziphiids and physeterids are rare on the east coast because they’re deep-water taxa, so you would think they’d be more common in California. On the other hand, there are a fair number from Belgium, which was also shallow water in the Miocene. I have to say I was shocked to find one from Carmel Church.

    My vote for weirdest tooth might have to go to the desmostylians; their molars look like a plate of sushi rolls.

  4. Doug says:

    Well, you’re the marine mammal guys, so i’ll have to take ya at your word.

    I never thought of them as weird because they looked like proboscidean teeth to me. Though now I don’t think i’ll be able to look at sushi the same way again…

  5. Alton Dooley says:

    Incidentally, these teeth are though to be used for intraspecies combat, in which the teeth are raked across the opponent. Modern male ziphiids are covered with scars from this. That probably explains the massive roots; these teeth would be experiencing a lot of lateral force.

    I’ve suspected that squalodonts were doing the same thing with their enlarged incisors, which pointed straight ahead and were about 2/3 to 3/4 root. However, unlike ziphiids, there’s no evidence of sexual dimorphism in the teeth of squalodonts.

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