Whale fossil discovered on Flint River

Published: Aug. 13, 2012 at 8:03 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 29, 2012 at 1:23 AM EDT
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Scientists think the bassilosaurus looked like this (Source: Wikipedia)
Scientists think the bassilosaurus looked like this (Source: Wikipedia)

A Georgia Southern University team of professors and students Monday started excavating the fossil of a whale on the shore of the Flint River. The geology dig has been in the works for two years, and the team calls it a stunningly significant find.

Did you know there were whales at one time in South Georgia? It's true. About 35 million years ago.

And now a team of geologists is digging out one huge piece of a whale as fascinating proof.

Three students and two professors from Georgia Southern University dig carefully on the bank of the Flint River, unearthing so far about a 7 foot fossil of the backbone of a 35 million year old whale.

"And it turns out we have a nice part of a probably this ancient fossil whale called a bassilosaurus," said Dr. Katy Smith of Georgia Southern University

This ancient whale was between 50 to 70 feet long, and swam freely in what was then the ocean. In a person, this vertebrae would be about 2 inches long, to give you an idea how big this whale was.

"A long time ago Georgia was covered in water.  It was under the ocean.  So at this time this whale was living Georgia was an ocean, or aquatic environment," said Smith.

The student volunteers spent most of the day carefully uncovering the vertebrae, finding the fossil bigger and bigger.

"This vertebrae is upturned and not in its place.  So we are just kind of cleaning the area and finding new things," said Georgia Southern Junior, Shawna Felkel.

The work is hot, and slow, but they are already learning a lot.

"We can see which way the head is.  And which way the tail is.  But that's about it right now," said Georgia Southern University senior Zach Ansley.

"To be able to find this much of a whale intact is pretty amazing for us," said Georgia Southern Junior, Kelly Simpson.

Most of the fossil is buried deep in limestone, so the team will have to break the rock around it, and take it back as much in one piece as they can.

"As it is encased in a lot of rock, and we are not going to be able to get all of the rock out of it while it's in here.  We're going to take it out in blocks of rock, take it back to Statesboro, and then prepare it there," said Smith.

After study and cleaning, the fossil will be displayed at Georgia Southern University's museum and looks like it will be their oldest whale fossil.

Georgia Department of Natural Resources rangers told the professor about the fossil, and are helping the dig.

They say there are many more ocean fossils like this around South Georgia, but this is the biggest they have found.

The Georgia Southern geology team will continue their fossil dig tomorrow, until they have it excavated and removed.  Georgia Department of Resources officers are guarding the dig site.

Dr. Katy Smith, is leading the excavation, with visiting instructor Alex Hastings, and students Shawna Felkel, Zach Ansley, Kelly Simpson.

Copyright 2012 WALB.  All rights reserved.