Whale skull from North Carolina

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.

This entry was posted in Chesapeake Group, North Carolina Balaenula. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Whale skull from North Carolina

  1. boesse says:

    Nice material! Looks like most/all of it’s there! There are a couple of Balaenula crania from California, both from the Late Miocene. One specimen is a nearly complete braincase that Larry Barnes described and figured in his Ph.D. (and mentioned the catalog # in his 1976 paper), which was collected in the 1960’s from the Wilson Grove Formation. The other specimen I know of is a basicranium with beautiful periotics from the San Luis Ray River Local Fauna of the San Mateo Formation, which is ~ 6-9 Ma. Both of these specimens are at the UCMP oversize facility. There is a third specimen their, a poorly preserved and weathered braincase from the early Pliocene Etchegoin Formation.

    Morgan Churchill will be able to say more, as he examined these crania for his Master’s Thesis.

  2. Alton Dooley says:

    Didn’t include a picture, but this guy has both periotics preserved, one detached from the skull. It’s extremely close to one from Lee Creek figured by Whitmore and Kaltenbach.

    Do you know if Morgan ever published figures of the CA right whale material someplace other than his thesis?

  3. boesse says:

    Hey Butch – I think Morgan’s thesis only concerned the San Diego Fm. material (which I forgot to mention).

    However, I have photos of the undescribed material from the San Mateo and Wilson Grove Formation. Also, I’ve got photos of undescribed petrosals from the Purisima and Santa Margarita Formations, if you’d like some for comparison.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s