Extinct Whale Found: Ancient Relative to Endangered Whale Species

A fossilized whale bone was found off the coast of Georgia, exciting researchers who have had only limited access at studying an elusive whale species.

The whale bone was first discovered by researchers from the University of Georgia and Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary when they were diving several miles of the off the coast of Georgia.

The excavation site was more than 50 feet below the ocean's surface in an ancient shell bed at JY Reef, which is just to the north of Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary. At first, researchers mistook the bone as coming from another pre-historic creature like a mammoth.

"I thought it was from a mammoth," Scott Noakes, a research scientist at University of Georgia, told, The Florida-Times Union.

Noakes, along with other researchers, were at the site studying the components of the reef and the overall health of the oceanic ecosystem. The site has produced other animal fragments as well, including bison teeth and bones from woolly mammoths, which led to the initial misclassification of the bone fragment.

The area around the researchers was known to be tens of thousands of years old and they knew they had a special discovery. Over the course of two years, researchers meticulously uncovered the bone by removing ocean sediment and other marine formations in order to bring the bone to the surface without damaging the specimen.

As the bone was uncovered, researchers found that it was not a bone from a land-dwelling mammal, but instead was from a whale.

Scientists guessed the bone was a distant relative of the North Atlantic right whale, an endangered species whose migratory pattern still takes the species along Georgia's coast.

The bone was sent to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., which identified the 5-foot long bone as that of an Atlantic gray whale. Carbon dating of the bone put the fragment at around 36,000 years old.