15 million-year-old whale skull found at Robert E. Lee’s birthplace

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

whale skull
That’s a big ol’ skull.

When I was at the park as a kid, I used to love going fossil hunting! I would dig down deep until I reached the muddy bottom of the sandbox looking for the bones of ancient creatures. Sometimes, I would get lucky and dig up a quarter or two, but for the most part I came up empty-handed. Oh, but when some amateur fossil hunter goes digging in the Potomac River banks in Stratford Hall,Virginia, they find a 15-million-year-old whale skull!

Unearthed in Westmoreland County, the whale skull was practically in the backyard of Robert E. Lee – the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War during the 1860s. He’s probably an old fossil himself by now, but compared to this whale skull he’s just a young whippersnapper.

The river is filled with ancients fossils. Over the years, fossil hunters have found shark teeth and different types of whale bones. “The Potomac as we know it today wasn’t here 15 million years ago,” said John Nance, a paleontologist from the Calvert Marine Museum. “There were… whales… dolphins, dugongs, sharks, and crocodiles all living in the area at this time.”

Nance said that the skull was something he only dreamed about. It’s around six feet long and weighs roughly 1,000 pounds! Wow, talk about being thick-headed. According to the Calvert Marine Museum, where the skull was taken, it’s one of the largest ever collected. The rest of the body – which is buried somewhere in the cliff around the skull – is estimated to be around 25 feet long, or more!

The skull is believed to be from a baleen whale, which is a toothless filter feeder.  Umm… come again? It just means that this whale didn’t have teeth, and in order to eat his food, he would filter water through his mouth and eat all the animals that got trapped inside (If you’ve ever seen the movie Finding Nemo, think of the scene where Marlin and Dory get stuck inside the whale’s mouth)!

“It’s really amazing to think about this area,” said Nance. “It was a tropical place… completely different from what it is today.” Forget my sandbox, I need to head over to the Potomac River, pronto!

Images courtesy of John Nance.