RSS feed of this blog

Calvert team finding whale, dolphin remains

A span of decades and a unique career path connects a cat skeleton in upstate New York to the prehistoric dolphin and whale skulls Stephen Godfrey recently helped excavate at two riverside sites in Westmoreland County.

The curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Md., was just 12 when he found the decayed remains of a cat at his grandparents’ farm in Saratoga County, N.Y. Already fascinated by natural history, he cleaned and assembled each and every bone of the cat skeleton, laying them out the way they’d been in life.

The skeletons of other animals followed, road kill and carcasses found by others, as the young Quebec native tried to learn all he could about animals, anatomy and nature.

The interest steered him to biology degrees in college and grad school, and then to study paleontology for a Ph.D. from McGill University in Montreal.

Fast forward to early this summer, when the paleontologist joined a host of other staffers and volunteer working at cliffs on the Potomac River at Westmoreland State Park.

Looking at fossils in the cliffs, Godfrey and others spotted what looked like “the very back end of a dolphin skull beginning to erode from the cliffs.” They asked and received permission to remove and preserve it.

He and a team of museum staffers and interns did just that in early June, extracting a portion of a skull and the nose-like rostrum from a dolphin that lived some 13 million to 14 million years ago.

Park manager Ken Benson ferried the crew to the site accessible only by water, where the paleontologist and his crew worked within easy reach of the remains while standing in the shallow water of the river.

They steadied themselves and protected the finds with ladders anchored into the side of the cliffs, carving the dolphin skull out of the sandy clay with screwdrivers, chisels, putty knives and paint scrapers.

But as it turned out, the team’s work was just getting started in the Westmoreland cliffs, which are similar to Maryland’s fossil-rich Calvert Cliffs where Godfrey and other museum officials have long extracted remains.

Alerted to the possibility of a large prehistoric skull in cliffs not far upriver from the state park at Stratford Hall plantation, Godfrey and museum paleo collections manager John Nance verified that it was indeed the skull of a prehistoric baleen whale.

That led to agreement from officials at Stratford Hall—the home of the Lees of Virginia and the birthplace of Robert E. Lee—to have the Calvert museum team extract, clean and preserve the Miocene Epoch whale skull.

Work began at the cliffs above a small beach in mid-June and continued sporadically into late July.

Excitement among all involved ramped up as the team from the marine museum determined that there was more than just the whale’s skull in those cliffs.

They now believe the cliffs may contain the entire whale, the skeletal remains of a creature that would have been 20-25 feet long.

Nance and a team of 30 volunteers from the Calvert museum, Stratford Hall and elsewhere convened on the riverside spot Saturday morning to remove the latest piece to be unearthed—a 7-foot section of the skull, which was wrapped in a protective cast and attached to metal poles for lifting.

As the sun beat down Saturday, the team used that manpower to get the 700-pound skull segment from the chore to a waiting boat, which took it to a dock at Westmoreland State Park.

There, park staffers helped by using a tractor with a front-end loading arms to move the skull remains to a waiting pickup.

Nance said large, separate segments of the whale’s jaw have already been wrapped and removed, and that he and others on the Calvert crew will work into August and possibly beyond to unearth the rest of the whale skeleton.

“We don’t believe it’s laid out like it would have been in life or a reconstructed skeleton in a museum,” he said. “It’s more like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces all jumbled up.”

Officials at Stratford Hall and at Westmoreland State Park are excited about the respective prehistoric remains eventually coming back to them—agreements with each spell that out—to help explain natural history.

Jon Bachman, educational events coordinator at Stratford Hall, said the hope among officials there is to one day be able to exhibit the entire whale skeleton for guests to the historic site.

Benson said park officials also look forward to the time when the prehistoric dolphin remains could be part of a natural history display.

Before that will happen for either, the remains will go to the museum at Solomons, where visitors will be able to see volunteers use hand tools and even dental picks to painstakingly scrape off dirt and detritus.

The remains will then be catalogued, studied by the paleontologists and preserved for years of display.

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415