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August 5, 2013

15 million-year-old whale skull found on banks of Potomac River

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

Schepmoes agreed that the whale "is about the biggest" fossil discovery in the cliffs because it seemed to be in one piece.

The first signs of the whale skull were discovered in June by Jon Bachman, another Stratford Hall staff member and fossil hunter, while he was walking along the beach, Schepmoes said.

Staff members of the Calvert facility had been working nearby and were brought to the site, and they began digging with hand tools such as picks and putty knives.

"The more they dug," said Schepmoes, "the bigger this thing got."

When the fossil emerged from the cliff face on July 20, Nance said, it was wrapped in plaster and burlap and lashed to metal poles. About a dozen people hoisted it into a boat, which took it to the nearby Westmoreland State Park boat ramp. From there, it was trucked to the marine museum.

Nance said the determination of the fossil's age was based on the geologic formation, known as the Calvert Formation, in the cliffs where the bones were found. Scientists have been studying the Calvert Formation for more than 100 years and have dated the various layers of rock, dirt and sediment. This makes it possible to determine the age of a fossil in relation to where it is discovered.

The specimen was identified as a baleen whale based on skull size and shape, and Nance noted that it belongs to a family of whales that is extinct. However, its shape and appearance would be comparable to a modern-day minke whale, he said. It is believed that the fossil belonged to a whale that would have been 25 or more feet long from nose to tail.

Scientists won't be able to conclusively determine the whale's species until the entire fossil is excavated, cleaned and examined, Nance said.

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