3-Million-Year-Old Whale Unearthed at the San Diego Zoo

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Workmen constructing a storm water equalization tank this week at the San Diego Zoo dug up a surprising find: a 3-million-year-old whale.

The construction crew was using an excavator to dig through fine-grained sand, when suddenly the machine struck a solid item. Further investigation revealed that this obstacle was an enormous prehistoric whale.

(Digging up the whale and labeling it; Credit: Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo)

Our genus, Homo, wasn't even around 3 million years ago, so this wasn't some sort of super prehistoric zoo. The site during the Pliocene was under water.

The 24-foot baleen whale appears to be very well preserved, with much of the fossilized skeleton present. Finding an intact skull, along with the vertebrae and flippers, is quite rare, according to Sarah Siren, San Diego Natural History Museum paleontological field manager.

The skull and other large pieces will be encapsulated in plaster jackets while smaller pieces, including vertebrae, are being cleaned with brushes and boxed up to be moved to the museum's laboratory for analysis of the finds.

The age of this whale is interesting, as it coincides with what's known as The Great American Interchange, where various land and freshwater faunas migrated between North and South America. Many species went extinct then. But armadillos, opposums, hummingbirds and vampire bats all traveled to North America, while horses, tapirs, saber-toothed cats and deer entered South America. The first short-faced bears also appeared at this time. 

 

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