Jump to content

Last Minute Discovery Of Whale Skull In New Zealand

Doctor Mud

Recommended Posts

I've been away in southern New Zealand for the last 3 days. Hunting for sharks teeth and performing "search and rescue" for Ewan Fordyce and collegues (including Bobby) at the University of Otago.

I'm passionate about sharks teeth - which are usually isolated specimens, so no serious extraction required. If I see something that looks like a complete skeleton or partial, I leave it to the pros.

The New Zealand C. angustidens teeth proved elusive again as the quarry I visit is working a different layer right now. Makos galore, but no angustidens. I saw the quarry owners collection before I left and was amazed by the preservation, no pitting in the roots like you often see - these were angustidens with Lee Creek like preservation. World class......

I was interested to see if there were any transitional forms in there, I'm not clear on the age range in the quarry, but some showed signs of fusing of the cusps to the blade reminiscent of chubutensis.

Sorry - no photos for a day or two. I'm still in the field and the internet keosk wont take my memory card!

For me the teeth remained elusive, but its nice to know when they start working the right layer they are there to be found. Apparently dozens of teeth have comer out of this locality. I did find at least two more penguin bones in the spoil piles. Two look like coracoids (where the flipper attaches) and I'm not sure about the third.

Anyway I was about to head home and I got a call from a quarry owner. I thought it was a long shot that I would be allowed in there. I went up there not expecting much but was surpised to see what appears to be a partial whale skull - unfortunately a little "ripped" by the machinery, but there are many bones scattered around and what looks like a complete earbone. These bones can be very diagnostic.....I belive it is a periotic earbone.

Looks like they exposed another baleen skull later in the day. There appears to be a somewhat intact mandible and other bones scattered along the path of the ripper for 20m.

I'll keep you all posted on what happens. Ewan Fordyce is coming up tomorrow to collect the first skull and I will show him the two other skeletons I found in the quarry as well. I hope it turns out to be a useful specimen.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hey Doctor Mud,

I got invited to go along tomorrow with Ewan, but declined as I have some pressing deadlines in the next two weeks and am far too stressed to tag along. It does sound promising, so thanks for calling us with the tip!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi Bobby,

Not a problem - I 'll be back in NZ later this year and hope to come down to Dunedin.

Hopefully you will be there.

I know what it is like when you are under the pump.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I just got back from the quarry.

Ill post a detailed update soon. It's been a long but very interesting day seeing Ewan Fordyce (and technician Sophie) at work.

I helped out where I could but this was a tricky one. There was at least one dolphin skull that was just skimmed by the ripper in the quarry. This meant it was fragmented. But there were three earbones so far (a very useful bone) two bullas and a periotic.

And the excitement for me ramped up when I picked up the first tooth.

We got around a dozen so far - primitive teeth unlike modern dolphin teeth with differentiated molars canines etc.

Further prep is needed but Ewan said this was reminiscent of a genus he discovered not so long ago called Waipatia.

Comparison of the earbones will confirm this. This specimen is around 26 million years old.

Sorry for the suspense and lack of pics so far! I was in the middle of nowhere using coin operated Internet with a card reader that didnt want to accept my card.

Pics will come tomorrow after some sleep.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

Can't wait to see the pics!

"Turn the fear of the unknown into the excitment of possibility!"

We dont stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.

Link to comment
Share on other sites


Now for some photos.

First an apparently uninteresting pile of glauconitic (high greensand content) limestone in a New Zealand quarry.

I've been prospecting and "rescuing" fossils from some lime quarries and was planning to head home until I got the go ahead to visit this site.

I did a systematic search of the quarry first - focussing on freshly exposed material. I figured that palaeontologists - especially from the University of Otago have been visiting this site for many years, and any interesting new finds would be made in freshly exposed material.

This turned out to be the site of the fossil dolphin (below).

Unfortunately the mining process gives and it takes away. These fresh finds would be exposed, but in the process of being exposed sometimes they get a little damaged or are completely destroyed. Sometimes its a matter of being in the right place at the right time to save the fossil.

I was lucky enough to be there before this specimen was crushed into dust.

The vital clue to the presence of the dolphin skull is in the block above the pick (about 40 cm tall)

I'll zoom in on this in the next picture.


Edited by Doctor Mud
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Looking foward to seeing it!

"Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe" - Saint Augustine

"Those who can not see past their own nose deserve our pity more than anything else."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

There were bone fragments in the blocks, apparent rib fragments, possible limb elements,

but the bone that really got me interested was this one (inside red square in the image below - arrow points to loose fragment).

Doesn't look like much does it?

That is unless you have seen a few cetacean (whale - dolphin) ear bones. Years ago a friend of mine found something interesting in a quarry in sediments about the same age as this (Oligocene ~ 26 million years old). It looked like an un assuming lump of phosphate.

Ewan Fordyce identified it as a periotic earbone from a whale. Since then I've seen quite a few and I am familiar with their shape, and the characteristic texture of the bone.

These bones are also quite diagnostic in terms of cetacean systematics. Cetacea have four main earbones - 2 periotics (one is pictured) and and 2 bullas.

It was after finding this that I called Ewan Fordyce at the University of Otago. I left everything as it was and called him on my cell phone. I hadn't actually talked to him for a while, but I had been in email contact. So I suppose it was a bit out of the blue for him to get a call from me.

"Hi Ewan, It's Craig here - we haven't talked for a while"

"Hi Craig, where are you calling from?" - There was a cold wind blowing that day with horizontal sleet. I was so excited by the discovery that I didn't even think to sit inside my car to make the call.

" Well Ewan, I'm in a quarry at ----- and I think I've found something interesting"

Ewan was able to mobilise the next day and I stayed an extra night as I was keen to show him where it was and see the excavation. It was a bit of a nervous night since the site was right by a road - less than a meter from where trucks and diggers drive past regularly....I deliberated between shifting the block with the earbone, but reasoned that it had survived so far that it would survive another night.


Edited by Doctor Mud
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I met up with Ewan and technician Sophie in the morning and showed him the site.

He confirmed that this was indeed a periotic, but he didn't say whether he had an inkling if this was from an odontocete (tooth whale) or primitive baleen whale. The elements looked too small to me to come from any baleen whale that I have seen.

We set to work systematically working from near the edge of the road towards the block with the earbone in brushing away loose matrix and checking blocks for bone.

Then - there it was - a tooth!

Note that this is not a conical tooth like modern toothed cetacean have but a flattened tooth with cusps. This was obviously an archaic or "primitive" toothed dolphin. Ewan said that this appeared to be in a shell horizon that has been dated to ~ 26 million years old. These primitive toothed whales were heterodonts - had a variation in tooth structure within the jaw as opposed to modern toothed whales that have similar teeth everywhere in the jaw.

After this first tooth the teeth started to show up - got over a dozen teeth in the end.

It took hours to clear all the loose matrix and blocks to get down to solid rock. The good news is that many of the elements that will be important for this specimen to make a useful contribution to cetacean evolution were there - both earbones (periotic, bulla) multiple teeth, and a great deal of the skull. The sad news is that it is a bit broken up - its going to be a challenge to piece it together. However, the teeth and ear bones themselves are very valuable specimens.

So sorry - I don't have a picture of a skull in all its glory as yet and it will take hours of painstaking work to get the best out of this specimen.


Edited by Doctor Mud
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Once we had cleared away all the loose bone, Ewan got to work with a chain saw with a tungsten carbide chain.

The rock is soft enough (rather like limestone used in buildings) that it can be cut using the chainsaw.

Ewan cut around the specimen after we had established its extent. Cubes of matrix created by cutting could then be popped off using a pick, eventually leaving the block with the specimen in. This is a much faster process than isolating the block and undermining it to created a pedestal. He could isolate a block and have it ready to pop off in about half an hour. The final step involves undercutting the block with the specimen in so it is ready to pop off.


Edited by Doctor Mud
Link to comment
Share on other sites

So this is a work in process, but hopefully there will be enough of the skull to piece most of it together.

This has now been loaded up destined for painstaking work at the University of Otago.

Here's another shot of some of the loose teeth. Some of the damage you see to the enamel is from mining, some may also be wear from feeding. Camera battery is about 3 cm on the longest edge.

Ewan said that this specimen is reminiscent of Waipatia, which he discovered several years ago. Waipatia is believed to be one of the ancestors of river dolphins, such as the Ganges river dolphin.

Time will tell whether this is another specimen of Waipatia (would this be the second Bobby?) or a closely related species.

I believe the ear bones will be one of the keys to this.

I'll keep you posted on any progress in the future.


Edited by Doctor Mud
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Waipatia is described in this paper by Ewan Fordyce:

Fordyce, R. E. 1994. Waipatia maerewhenua, new genus and new species (Waipatiidae, new family), an archaic Late Oligocene dolphin (Cetacea: Odontoceti: Platanistoidea) from New Zealand. Pages 147-176 in A. Berta and T. Demere (eds), Contributions in marine mammal paleontology honouring Frank C. Whitmore, Jr. (Proceedings of the San Diego Museum of Natural History, 29) 268 p.

This is available on the University of Otago web page (too big to upload here):


Here is a picture of the skull of Waipatia from this web page.

Note the images of the ear bones (periotic and bulla) and the variation in tooth morphology from font to back of the jaw.


Edited by Doctor Mud
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks Dave,

Yes - we have a fantastic Tertiary sequence with great exposures of rocks ranging from the Paleocene to present day. Great for penguins too!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Four Thumbs Up on this detailed and exciting write-up! :thumbsu: :thumbsu: :thumbsu: :thumbsu:

I'm practically breathless from 'being there' :)

"There has been an alarming increase in the number of things I know nothing about." - Ashleigh Ellwood Brilliant

“Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” - Thomas Henry Huxley

>Paleontology is an evolving science.

>May your wonders never cease!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hey all,

Thanks for the detailed update Mud Doctor! I was just finishing up some photography for one of my thesis chapters when Ewan and Sophie unexpectedly walked into the building at about 6pm - normally when Ewan does fieldwork he stays out as late as possible, which means that during the summer months we might not come back into town until 10-10:30 at night; I was surprised because it was still light out. This meant, in my mind, that Ewan and Sophie either 1) collected everything and didn't lug back a couple of plaster monoliths or 2) whatever it was was so huge that they had to leave it for another visit. Fortunately it was the former; before heading out, Ewan stated that he thought it sounded like a mysticete (baleen whale) specimen. Mysticetes are great and all (they're the focus of my Ph.D.), but they're so damned big: we've found a number of largish specimens recently, including an enormous latest Oligocene mysticete from a quarry in South Canterbury that was collected in two jackets, which when combined, would be just longer than 3 meters, and almost 2 meters across. Preparing that is going to be a pain in the . I do take some unfortunate blame for finding that: we had been digging up a few dolphins and penguins, and I thought I needed a break, so my labmate Yoshi and I went on a prospecting walk. We made it about 100 feet and Yoshi found a baleen whale mandible the size of a small tree trunk.

Anyway, regarding Waipatia: there so far aren't any referred specimens, although Yoshi is describing a cf. Waipatia that I think is going to be another new genus. These specimens could turn out to be from either. Other waipatiids include the very-very-very recently redescribed Otekaikea marplesi (literally published this morning: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0107972), which doesn't have cheek teeth (the teeth I've seen of the newly collected specimen are all posterior cheek teeth, while the teeth of Otekaikea are all anterior tusklike teeth). Anyway, the scope here is pretty great, and preparation has already started on the specimen.

Thanks for the tip Mud Doctor!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Good report. I might be going up to Kakanui this weekend as well to have a go at looking for shark teeth. I found my first shark tooth at Mikonui Stream near Oaro (Cretaceous in age) and have been wanting to find more teeth ever since.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hey Carcharodontosaurus - ever find any vertebrates at Kakanui other than shark teeth?

Also, have you ever swung by the Geo museum on campus here in Dunedin? Apology in advance if I asked you before and am forgetting.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I've never been to Kakanui before, but I have heard that sawshark teeth are somewhat common there, and it is the type locality for Tangaroasaurus and a penguin.

I have been to the Geology Museum a number of times and have talked to Fordyce, Sophie and Marcus there. I am currently doing a "buddy program" with Marcus.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks Auspex!

There was a lot of that this time in the field for me - being breathless....a little bit of excitement and a little too long since I last walked up hill and down dale!

Ewan must be in his 60s by now and I think he is fitter than I am right now :)

Edited by Doctor Mud
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Mmmm for some reason my quote function doesn't seem to work on this computer.....

(Quote post #19 ).

Thanks Bobby,

Some of those Mysticetes seem to be large beasts and Ewan was lamenting that he was running out of storage space....perhaps only room for one more large specimen?

We did manage to collect most of the specimen, but there was more than I expected. We had to leave behind some of the posterior skeleton and I think Ewan might return someday to collect that. The time-consuming part of this dig, was that the blocks were loose to start of with and we needed to be careful sifting through all the loose rubble until be had in-situ matrix.

Thanks for the update on Waipatiids. I took another look at Ewan's paper on Waipatia and I can see that the loose teeth from the new specimen were mostly cheek teeth. Those delicate teeth on the anterior jaw are interesting in Waipatia. Ewan thought they were too delicate to be involved in feeding and may have been used for display?

I'm hoping there is more of the upper or lower jaw buried in one of the blocks that we removed and more teeth.. Sophie will definitely have here work cut out for here with this prep!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hey Carcharodontosaurus,

Kakanui is a great place if you want to look for sharks teeth.

I've collected from there many times and saw shark rostral spines (esp. from Pristiophorus and Ikamauius), and Mako shark teeth. If you are lucky you might find a mega-shark (Carcharocles angustidens) tooth - they have been found from there.

Keep an eye out for penguin remains too. I think one of the first identified fossil penguin remains from New Zealand (a tarso-metatarsus or ankle bone) came from Kakanui.

Happy hunting!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...