The paleontology team from Georgia Southern University has found it difficult to extract the whale fossil found near the Flint River in Albany from the hard limestone surrounding it. Efforts toward extraction have ended for now but will resume in mid-September with more specialized equipment.
ALBANY, Ga. — Before the peanut fields or cotton crops — before quail hunts or 12-point bucks, a monster of sorts ruled south Georgia. Yes, one bigger even than the legendary Hogzilla.
Basilosaurus was the biggest boy around — a whale of the Eocene era, 60 feet or more with giant pointed teeth. One of the giants made its final dive over what is now Albany and has once more seen the light of day some 35 million years — and an ocean of salt water — later.
According to Katy Smith, director of paleontology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, what turned out to be seven vertebrae of the huge mammal were discovered by employees of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, including Robert Weller, aquatic supervisor.
Weller notified the university and Smith’s team of students have attempted to extract the fossil. Little progress has been made toward that end, Smith said, because of the difficulty in safely separating it from the hard limestone in which it’s embedded. From what the team has managed to expose so far, Smith thinks they’ve seen about all that will be recovered.
“I don’t believe there’s too much more,” Smith said. “The first four vertebrae are lined up nicely, while bones toward the tail are more jumbled with fragments here and there.”
The team has found no evidence of the creature’s head near the vertebrae and, according to Smith, it may have eroded away. Ironically, the limestone that makes extraction so difficult may be the very reason the fossil has lasted for so long, Smith said.
Smith said her team plans to return to the site near the Flint River in mid-September to continue the challenge. This time, they expect to be better equipped to meet the task — with more powerful and specialized equipment for cutting through the limestone. The procedure will be to separate the vertebrae and transport them individually to the university lab, still encased in limestone. Once there, the more delicate work will be done, including coating the fossil with a type of “liquid plastic” which will penetrate the bone and protect it.
Smith believes the process of extraction and preservation can be completed within two years, after which the fossil will be displayed in the university museum.
Basilosaurs are relatively rare in Georgia, Smith said, which is one reason the find was so exciting. Oddly, in neighboring Alabama the fossils turn up fairly often. In fact, Basilosaurus is the “state fossil” of Alabama and Mississippi.
The giant mammal got its name, which means “King Lizard,” in 1832 when the first one was discovered in Louisiana. Because of its fearsome-looking teeth and lizard-like body, it was mistakenly believed to be a reptile. The “saurus” remained, even when Basilosaurus was deemed to be a mammal and, in fact, an early whale.