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Whale Fossils Found at NASA Langley
Headquarters, Washington, DC July 22, 1996
Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA
ANCIENT WHALE SURFACES AT NASA LANGLEY
Thanks to the sharp eyes of two surveyors, the fossil remains
of a 3.5-million-year-old whale have been discovered at NASA's
Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA.
The bones of the 30-foot juvenile baleen whale were
found July 15 by two surveyors working at a piping trench
under construction. The findings include a skull, tympanic
bulla (part of the ear bones of a whale), vertebrae and rib
fragments. More fossil remains are still to be unearthed.
Langley is loaning the remains to the College of William
and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, for study, said John Mouring,
Langley's facility master planner and preservation officer.
The discovery, considered rare but not unprecedented,
opens a window into the history of the Langley site about 3.5
million years ago, when the Atlantic shoreline was probably
30 to 40 miles west of its present location and covered the
Center, said Dr. Gerald (Jerre) Johnson of William and Mary's
"The research opportunity will provide insight into the
development of whales through geologic time," Johnson said.
Preliminary work indicates the whale bones are the
remains of an almost mature creature that died and was
quickly buried on a broad, wave-swept sand shoal.
The bones were about four feet below the surface of the
ground in a reddish-brown sandy clay of the upper weathered
part of the Yorktown Formation. The lower beds in the trench
are sands comprised of broken marine mollusks, barnacles, and
other groups. This soil grades upward into the weathered
part of the Yorktown Formation containing the whale remains.
Shell material that once surrounded the whale has been
dissolved away by groundwater. A gravel, sand and mud
sequence overlies the whale-bearing beds; these were deposited
in an ancestral Chesapeake Bay about 100,000 years ago.
The highly broken condition of most of the shells in the
beds immediately below the whale tells of the strong wave and
current activities that prevailed in the area when the whale
came to rest on the sea floor.
Johnson said the chronological age of the whale is
based upon the relative size of the tympanic bulla to the
vertebra, and the degree of fusion of the plates on the
central part of the vertebrae. Even though the jaw has not
been found, the size of the ear bone indicates a baleen
rather than a toothed whale.
The whale remains were discovered by two surveyors while
a utility contractor, T.A. Sheets, dug an eight-foot-deep
piping trench in the old rocket test area of the Center on
the south side of Lewis Loop near East Bush Road.
The surveyors, Vanessa Butler and Kit Cain of Sverdrup
Technologies Inc., a Langley contractor, were working in the
area when they spotted two vertebrae and assorted rib pieces
in the excavated Earth pile.
Knowing that Langley grounds are rich in prehistoric and
historic artifact resources and that they are managed here by
law, they took the bones to Mouring.
Mouring determined that animal remains not associated
with an archaeological context do not require preservation in
the federal system (except for Bureau of Land Management and
National Forests). "This is paleontology - not cultural
resources," he said. "If it is human-related (prehistoric or
historic) it must be managed here at Langley under the
National Historic Preservation Act."
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