The Yorktown whale

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When we talk about whales from the U.S. Atlantic coast, we’re usually talking about specimens from the Middle Miocene Calvert Formation, since the vast majority of the whales from this region come from that unit. However, there are other units on the Coastal Plain besides the Calvert, and while they don’t produce a lot of whales, every now and then something turns up.

Last year, while walking along the beach on U.S. Navy property on the York River near Yorktown, Carol Peterson discovered what appeared to be several whale vertebrae exposed just above the high tide line. Naval Facilities Engineering Command archaeologist Bruce Larson contacted Rowan Lockwood, a paleontologist at the College of William and Mary, who in turn contacted me to evaluate the potential for an excavation. Late last fall Ray and I spent a day at the site confirming that there was an apparent series of vertebrae (top) and putting them under a temporary field jacket to stabilize them for the winter. Today we returned with Bruce, Carol, Rowan, and several carloads of William and Mary students to begin excavating the whale.

Our first challenge today was finding the site. Over the last six months there has been so much sedimentation that the jacket was completely buried, and we had to use photos from our last trip to pinpoint the location. Eventually we found the old jacket, removed it, and began uncovering new bone:

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Even after a full day of digging, I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on with this whale. It’s clearly laying on its back, and includes at least cervical vertebrae 2-7, plus some ribs and other unidentified bones. So far we haven’t found anything that looks like part of the skull. Here’s a closeup of the cervicals (anterior is toward the bottom):

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Some of the vertebrae are big:

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That appears to be a posterior thoracic vertebra, so it wouldn’t be the largest vertebra in the series. If complete, this would likely have been a minimum 12 to 15 m whale (40 to 50 feet). Although there’s still a lot of material I can’t yet identify, the size and the lack of fusion in the cervicals suggest that this is most likely a balaenopterid.

We’ll be continuing to work on this for the next couple of days, and I’ll be posting daily updates here on on Twitter (@altondooley).

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