A whale skull that is "approximately 15 million years old" was discovered on the banks of the Potomac River last month.
The skull is about six feet long and weighs about 1,000 pounds, and is one of the largest whale skulls uncovered in the area. The entire whale would have been 25 feet long. The skull was uncovered in Stratford Hall where General Robert E. Lee was born in 1807. The rest of the skeleton is still embedded in the cliffs.
Experts believe that the fossil is that of a type of baleen whale that is now extinct. Baleen whales are toothless filter feeders and can grow up to 110 feet in length. Blue whales, which are the largest known animal species, are a type of baleen whale. Nance said the species can't be identified conclusively until the whole skeleton is examined.
John Nance, the paleontology collections manager at the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland, said it is uncommon to have such a large and complete fossil.
"In a marine environment, the bones are usually scavenged and scattered all about," he said. "The really interesting thing 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."
Stratford Hall staff member Jon Bachman was the first to discover signs of the whale skull in June. The skull finally emerged from the face of the cliffs on July 20.
Over 30 people volunteered to help move the whale skull, which was wrapped in plaster and burlap, from the beach to the museum. The skull was loaded into a boat and taken to the ramp at Westmoreland State Park. It was then placed onto the bed of a museum truck with a tractor and sling.
The Stratford Cliffs have yielded a number of fossils from the Miocene era, which extends from about 23 million to 5.3 million years ago. Plants and animals during this period were fairly modern, and whales in particular spread during this era.
[Photos courtesy of: Calvert Marine Museum, Stratford Marine Museum]