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Giant Baleen Whale skull discovered at Stratford Hall

Stratford Hall, the home of the legendary Lee family since Thomas Lee built the brick Georgian great house in 1730, has also been the home of a giant Baleen whale skull for millions of years.

Jon Bachman, public events manager at Stratford Hall, discovered the whale fossil buried in the Potomac

River cliffs at Stratford Hall in early June. The whale skull, weighing some 1,000 pounds, is one of the largest intact fossils of its kind ever found in Virginia.

Saturday, the staffs of Stratford Hall and the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland carefully excavated the huge fossil. It was transported by boat to the dock at Westmoreland State Park, where it was unloaded by tractor and placed in a pick-up truck and taken to the Marine Museum for exhibit as a loan from Stratford Hall.

“Calvert has been here working on and off for the past several weeks,” Jim Schepmoes, Stratford Hall’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations, said. “As they started uncovering it, the fossil just kept getting bigger and bigger.”

Schepmoes said the whale fossil discovery “highlights the importance of the cliffs at Stratford Hall. While this fossil is on loan and being worked on at the Calvert Marine Museum, visitors to Stratford can see other fossils in our collection in our Visitor Center.”  

Schepmoes also added, “We need people to be aware that digging in the cliffs by the public is not allowed due to the potential of cave-ins.”

Ancient Baleen whales were among the largest animals to have ever lived. Instead of teeth, they used baleen to feed — plates with frayed edges in the upper jaw that filtered seafood from the water. Baleen fossils have been found throughout the world including Australia, California and now Virginia.

Bachman first spotted the whale skull on June 12, when he accompanied Dr. Robert Weems and Brian Landacre. These scientists were doing research on the sediments that make up the Stratford cliffs.

“Any fossil is a rarity...perhaps a one in a million chance to see a trace of life from the distant past...and, any vertebrate fossil is even more rare,” Bachman said. “To find an example of a probable Baleen whale fossil is all the more exciting.”

“The evolutionary record of whales is one of the most complete in the paleontological record, and offers a chain of adaptation 50 million years long. The Stratford specimen will add to the information on aquatic adaptations that have lead to our modern whales,” Bachman said.

 

Richard Leggitt

 

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