Can one fossil change the whole story?
June 25, 2012
While exploring a Caribbean beach during a field course*, Dioselina Vigil noticed strange fossilized bones poking out of the sand
While exploring a Caribbean beach during a field course*, Dioselina Vigil noticed strange fossilized bones poking out of the sand. She called STRI paleontologist Aaron O’Dea, who called Nicholas Pyenson, specialist in whale fossils at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Nick answered immediately: “Wow, it is a squalodontid, a shark-toothed whale skull!” This whole group of animals was thought to have gone extinct 15 to 20 million years ago. The fossil is only 6 million years old, making it an intriguing mystery.
The team had to wait for low tide to stabilize and excavate the skull. The process normally takes three days but they completed the excavation in only four hours.
Dioselina, an undergraduate at the University of Panama, is now an intern in Pyenson’s Vertebrate Paleontology lab. Her fossil preparation skills rapidly improved as she readied the first plaster jackets of the skull. The skull may yield new knowledge about this group of shark-toothed whales, which apparently could echolocate, like bats, but under water.
*The course was organized by Panama’s Secretariat for Science and Technology (SENACYT), STRI and the Young People’s Committee for the Advancement of Science in Panama (COJUCIP).