Several months ago Vince Schneider, the paleontologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, generously asked if I would be interested in working on a whale skull that was found in Lake Waccamaw State Park a few years ago (here’s an account of the discovery from the North Carolina State Park newsletter-pdf format). Never one to pass up on a whale, I agreed to come down, but my work at Beckley and Carmel Church prevented me from making the trip until yesterday.
I didn’t really know what I was going to be looking at, beyond it being a baleen whale. I was surprised when I arrived to see a nearly complete skull, not of a “cetothere” or a balaenopterid, but of a right whale!
Right whales are not particularly common as fossils along the Atlantic coast of North America. They start showing up in the early Pliocene Sunken Meadow Member of the Yorktown Formation, but the remains are usually isolated tympanic bullae or other scraps. By far the best specimen is the holotype of Balaena ricei, from the upper Yorktown Formation in Virginia, which includes a partial skull and a large part of the postcranial skeleton. Even with such spotty remains it has still been possible to recognize two right whale genera from the east coast, the large Balaena and the much smaller Balaenula. The small Lake Waccamaw skull, only about 7 feet long, appears to represent Balaenula. As far as I know, this is the only Balaenula skull known from North America (the genus has been reported from California, but I’m not sure what material has been found there).
The skull, while fragmented, is almost complete. Here’s the oddly-shaped right maxilla, with the dentaries in the background:
Both tympanic bullae and both periotics are preserved with the skull, giving a nice basis for comparison to the scrappy material known from the Sunken Meadow Member. Here’s one of the Balaenula tympanic bullae from our collection, followed by one of the bullae from the Lake Waccamaw specimen, shown at approximately the same scale (the bottom and left edges of the Virginia specimen are broken):
The Lake Waccamaw skull appears to be fractionally larger than other Balaenula specimens (based on the size of the tympanic bullae), and there are other small differences, but at this point the referral looks pretty good. It’s noteworthy that the Lake Waccamaw skull comes from the late Pliocene Bear Bluff Formation, which at about 2.8 million years makes this specimen 1.7 million years younger than the Balaenula specimens from Lee Creek Mine and from Virginia.
The North Carolina museum plans to place this skull on exhibit at the Lake Waccamaw State Park visitor center, and during my visit I got a chance to meet park superintendent Chris Helms and exhibit fabricator Craig Fitzpatrick. The three of us were able to discuss with Vince plans for displaying the skull so that it will still be easily accessible to scientists wishing to study it, and Chris was a big help to me in testing the fit of the various skull fragments. There was no way I could completely study this skull in one day, however, so I’ll be returning to Raleigh in January for a more detailed examination.
Note: Edited to correct an error in stratigraphy.