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Teen Finds Ancient Whale Skull

Sixteen-year-old Lindsey Stallworth discovered a whale skull that’s millions of years old.
A teenager lies facing the ground using an instrument to excavate an object.
Alabama School of Mathematics and Science
Lindsey Stallworth excavates a fossil in a field on her family’s property.

A teen was looking for fossils in Alabama when she found the fossilized remains of a whale that died millions of years ago. Experts say the fossil may be of a species that was previously unknown.

Sixteen-year-old Lindsey Stallworth and her teacher, Drew Gentry, were digging on the Stallworth family’s property when they came across some fossilized bones. At first it wasn’t clear what they’d found. But as they continued to unearth their discovery and found that it included teeth, they realized it was a very large skull—about 4 or 5 feet (1 or 2 meters) long. Gentry, who is a paleontologist, later found information to suggest that the skull is about 34 million years old.

“It’s really hard to comprehend something that’s that many millions of years old, but it started to make more sense once we started getting the dirt away and saw what the skull might have looked like,” Stallworth told the Washington Post.

A man and a teen girl stand in a flatbed to which a large object has been secured with straps.
Alabama School of Mathematics and Science
Lindsey (right) and her teacher, Drew Gentry, pose with the ancient whale skull they discovered.
Gentry sent photos of the skull to some other scientists, who said it was a carnivorous whale. It may be a relative of a larger prehistoric whale called Basilosaurus cetoides, which was about 60 feet (18 meters) long. Gentry, who discovered two turtle species from fossils he found in Alabama, says it’s not unusual to find fossils of marine animals in the state. Millions of years ago, much of what’s now Alabama was covered by a shallow sea.
A teenager lies facing the ground using an instrument to excavate an object.
Alabama School of Mathematics and Science
Lindsey cleans the 34-million-year-old whale skull she discovered on her family’s property.
The skull is now being kept at the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science, where Stallworth is in 11th grade. Stallworth plans to continue to study it during the school year. Next summer, she and Gentry will work on uncovering the rest of the whale’s remains. They hope that, at some point, scientists can determine if the whale species is already known or new to science. “I was really overwhelmed [to find the fossil], but at the same time, I was just full with excitement,” Stallworth told NBC 15. “As a high schooler, I didn’t think I’d get to do any of this stuff.”

Did You Know?

MCDinosaurhunter/Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center (CC BY 3.0)

A sea covering what’s now Alabama was home to Protostega, an ancient sea turtle that was almost as big as a car!

An Ancient Sea

An illustration of a swimming fish with large, pointed teeth.
© Estebande/Dreamstime.com
Fossils show that millions of years ago, a predatory fish called Xiphactinus lived in what is now Alabama.

About 80 million years ago, high temperatures melted the polar ice caps and the oceans spilled over coastlines. A shallow sea that scientists call the Mississippi Embayment covered much of what’s now the southeastern United States. How do we know? The inhabitants of this sea left behind many, many fossils. In areas of the Southeast that are nowhere near the coast, it’s possible to find evidence of ancient marine life.

One of those places is Harrell Station, in Alabama. The fossils there paint a picture of a body of water brimming with gigantic sea turtles, sharks, and massive fish called coelacanths. The apex predator was the mosasaur, a marine reptile that could grow to 50 feet (15 meters) or longer and hunted pretty much every other creature.

Age of Monsters

An animal resembling a crocodile with fins swims with its mouth open and teeth showing.
© Mr1805/Dreamstime.com
Giant marine reptiles called mosasaurs lived during the Cretaceous Period, which ended 66 million years ago. During this time, dinosaurs were still roaming Earth—but their days were numbered. You can read more about the Cretaceous Period at Britannica.

WORD OF THE DAY

primeval

PART OF SPEECH:
adjective
Definition:
: very old or ancient
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