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Whale Fossils Found at NASA Langley

Don Nolan-Proxmire
Headquarters, Washington, DC                   July 22, 1996
(Phone:  202/358-1983)

Michael Finneran
Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA
(Phone:  757/864-6121)

RELEASE:  96-145

     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 
geology department. 

     "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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