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August 5, 2013

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

WASHINGTON — From the banks of the Potomac River, in a region steeped in American history, a massive fossil was dug up last month that apparently can be traced back to a time long before this country's recorded history, a time deep in the world's prehistory.

The fossil is the skull of a whale that is "approximately 15 million years old," said John Nance, the paleontology collections manager at the Calvert Marine Museum in Southern Maryland.

The skull is about six-feet long and is believed to weigh about 1,000 pounds. It was excavated in July from the cliffs at the edge of the Potomac on the grounds of Stratford Hall, the home of Virginia's Lee family and the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. The Potomac River forms part of the border between Maryland and Virginia.

The rest of the skeleton, which experts believe belongs to a type of baleen whale that has since gone extinct, remains embedded in Stratford Hall's sand-colored cliffs.

Stratford Hall is in Westmoreland County, and both George Washington and the country's fifth president, James Monroe, were born in the county, about 100 miles southeast of Washington.

The eroding river bank where the fossil was found is one of the world's few Miocene cliffs, said Jim Schepmoes, Stratford's spokesman, referring to the geological epoch 5 million to 23 million years ago.

Thousands of shark teeth have been found there, and the area is known to be rich in marine fossils. Whales are relatively common in the area, so the rogue bone has been found in the past.

"But to have such a large and complete specimen is pretty uncommon," Nance said. "In a marine environment, the bones are usually scavenged and scattered all about. . .. The really interesting thing," he said, "is we have all the post-cranial material — the vertebrae, the ribs, the flipper bones. It will give us a more complete picture of what these animals looked like."

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