Alabama teen Lindsey Stallworth unearths 34 million-year-old whale skull – Lifotravel

Some paleontologists go their entire careers without a discovery like the one 16-year-old Lindsey Stallworth found on her first day of digging.

Stallworth was hours into digging on her family’s Alabama property in June when her science teacher, Drew Gentry, asked if she saw tiny fragments of bone on the hillside. She followed him up the hill, where they found larger pieces and dug further.

Their shocking discovery? A whale skull estimated to be 34 million years old.

“I just kind of stood there for a solid two minutes staring at it, thinking, ‘What we have actually found?’” she told The Washington Post on Wednesday.

Stallworth said she could hardly comprehend discovering a potential new species of whale on her family’s timber property in Monroe County, Ala.

“I was very, very excited, but I was also confused since this was my first experience in paleontology,” said Stallworth, a junior at the Alabama School of Math and Science (ASMS) in Mobile. “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.”

Gentry had visited his student’s property in hopes of finding more fossilized shark teeth like the ones Stallworth had brought into his biology class last year, he said. Instead, the student and teacher found the skull of an ancient whale that swam through the shallow seas that had covered most of southern Alabama millions of years ago.

Using information from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Geological Survey of Alabama, Gentry said he was able to determine that the whale skull they found was about 34 million years old.

“We found something much larger than what we intended to find,” Gentry, 38, told The Post. “We obviously did not plan on doing a massive whale excavation.”

Alabama paleontologist Jun Ebersole confirmed that the whale skull found by Stallworth and Gentry is around 34 million years old.

“It’s at the 34 million-year mark. That’s a pretty darn good estimate of this,” said Ebersole, the director of collections at the McWane Science Center in Birmingham. “Once the whale is prepared and the bones are out of the rock and reassembled, there’s a very good chance it’s a new species.”

The discovery of the whale skull was first reported by

Stallworth has been interested in picking shells and hunting for shark teeth in her family’s yard since she was around 7, she said.

“The biggest thing I previously found was a shark’s tooth about three inches tall and wide that took up the palm of my hands,” she said.

When she took Gentry’s biology class last year, Stallworth knew of her teacher’s interest in paleontology. Gentry, who holds a Ph.D. in paleontology, has studied fossils in Alabama for years and previously discovered two new species of turtles found from fossils in the state. One of them was a turtle species that lived 83 million years ago, reported.

After class one day, Stallworth brought in a small bag of shark teeth she had collected from her yard. He was immediately intrigued when he recognized one of the shark teeth as being from an uncommon species.

“She asked, ‘Are you interested in looking for fossils?’” Gentry recalled. “I said, ‘I need to know more about where you found these teeth.’”

On June 22, Stallworth and Gentry went to her family’s property in Monroe County, about 80 miles northeast of Mobile. Gentry surveyed the land for all of the fossils present, from shells to shark teeth. Stallworth, who has always wanted to be a marine biologist, thought it would be a fun thing to do.

But as they were surface collecting on the land in the first hours of the dig, the student and teacher started to see more fragments of bone. They followed the trail of bone fragments up the hill, which led them to several large bones protruding out of the ground. They were curious about what they could be.

“The truth is we didn’t know what we had found because only part of the skeleton was exposed on the surface,” Gentry said. “We used dental picks to scrape away the dirt from around the bones, and we realized what it was.”

What they had was the skull of a 15- to 20-foot whale that appears to be a smaller relative of the Basilosaurus cetoides, a 50- to 60-foot ancient whale species that also serves as Alabama’s state fossil, Gentry said. The teacher added that the whale skull could be closely related to zygorhiza, a smaller, lesser known whale species that has been found in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

When they realized what the fossil was, Stallworth and Gentry had to figure out how to safely excavate the whale skull from the soil and transfer it back to school in Mobile. It involved 10- to 12-hour days of digging and cleaning in summer temperatures with heat indexes above 110 degrees, Gentry said. The month-long process of transferring the whale skull to slabs of limestone was so demanding, tedious and frustrating that the duo gave their rare fossil a modern nickname.

“The main nickname for it is Karen,” joked Stallworth, referring to the pejorative slang term for a middle-class White woman who is perceived as entitled and privileged.

“The whale was quite difficult to deal with on a couple of occasions,” Gentry added, laughing. “We can’t share the other names we called it.”

On July 21, the whale skull safely arrived at ASMS for research.

“Those 10-12 hour days were entirely worth it,” Stallworth said. “The day we got it into the lab, it felt surreal that we were doing this.”

Ebersole, the collections director at the McWane Science Center, had previously taught Gentry and was familiar with Stallworth’s shark teeth discovery when he heard about the whale skull. He said that even if the whale skull is not a new species, “it could be the youngest of a species.”

“No matter what, it’s a very important discovery,” Ebersole told The Post. “For that skull to be available now for science, and for Lindsey to be involved in every step of the way, it’s a great story.”

The 34-million-year-old whale skull has found instant popularity in the halls of ASMS at the start of the school year, with Stallworth’s classmates asking her if they can catch a glimpse of the fossil. The duo are planning to return to the hillside next summer to excavate more.

Stallworth is balancing her classwork with the two hours of lab time she gets each day to clean up the whale skull. The experience has her considering eventually double-majoring in paleontology and marine biology, she said.

“I had my career path set, but I am getting a curveball,” she said. “And I’m taking that curveball.”

For now, she’s off to French class. She is admittedly working on how to say something in French about the 34 million-year-old whale skull nicknamed Karen.

“Let’s just say I’m a very big science person,” she said through laughter.

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