This is one whale of a storyBy TIM GETER,
Once upon a time many years ago animals unimaginable roamed this earth leaving behind links into history with their bones buried beneath the surface, today known as fossils.
According to Webster, fossils are the remains or impressions of a prehistoric organism preserved in petrified form or as a mold or cast in rock.
In the fall of 2016 Matthew Giammalvo was metal detecting in Scott County deep in the woods on private land. “I was in a hilly area and had been seeing a lot of concretions (hard masses) which I thought may have been remnants of an old house foundation,” Giammalvo said. “As a result I was paying particularly close to where I was travelling at the time hoping to find a signal/get lucky.”
As he circled around the top of the small hill, he stumbled upon what he thought was part of a skeleton of a cow half buried in the dirt.
“I wasn’t having any luck, and because it was awfully warm out, I decided to pry it out of the ground for a closer look while taking a break,” Giammalvo said. “Much to my surprise what came out of the ground was solid rock. Looking closer at it, it looked like that of a vertebrae and looking at it I realized it was a fossil of some sort.”
As Giammalvo continued to look around he saw that there were numerous other bone like structures sticking out of the ground. “I started seeing other vertebrae and ribs partially exposed in a relatively small area,” he said. Giammalvo also said that as he rinsed and wiped off the fossils with water they had a purplish hue, not unlike wet flint.
Not realizing the significance at the time but excited to find something interesting, he proceeded to gather as many as he could.
He realized that he had spent a lot of time hunting that day digging in the ground and had a full backpack of fossils. “I made my way back to my car, trekking up and down the hills and streams to eventually get back to my car, exhausted but excited,” Giammalvo said.
After returning home he laid out all the fossils that he had found during that day. “ I gathered some 5-gallon buckets and laid fossils in the bottom and filled each up with water to let them soak so I could see about removing the soil they had laid in to see what was underneath,” he said.
The next morning he took each one out and carefully brushed them with a plastic bristle brush, “careful to not use any chemicals nor metal tools to avoid damaging anything.”
After cleaning, he put each back into a fresh clean five gallon bucket.
“Once again the following morning I took everything out and carefully cleaned each fossil and then laid them out to dry. I was excited to have many ribs, vertebra, and all sorts of medium to large fossils in between in front of me,” Giammalvo said.
Because of the quanity of fossils he had and lack of knowledge of what exactly he had in his possession he found a facebook group specializing in fossils. “I was getting advice from professionals and hobbyists with many years of experience in how to store and carefully dig and record my finding.
Being able to contact multiple people that were knowledgeable about fossil findings allowed Giammalvo to gain knowledge on how to dig fossils up properly and what type of tools to use so that he wouldn’t damage any of those remaining.
While understanding the concept better he was able to embark on new fossils. “In particular I found something unique near an embankment I was digging, which appeared to be vertebrae sandwiched in between a white substance similar to limestone. However it was sandwiched repeatedly between fossils I was uncovering so I took pictures and didn’t do any further digging, just in case it needed to be looked at by one of the professionals from the museum in Jackson that I had talked with,” Giammalvo said.
George Phillips, the Paleontology curator at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science was very helpful to Giammalvo on getting advice.
Giammalvo made four more visits and the fossil finds started to slow down. He then started to use a bottle probe which is used to push into the ground. Giammalvo said that the probe tip and mater and material itself prevents damage as long as the rod is not heavily rammed into the soil, and with practice one can tell the difference between roots, glass, metal, and rock. “I determined that there was a huge area of hits about 15 feet from my initial dig site, about two to three feet down,” Giammalvo said.
He then use a shovel to dig around the perimeter and when he reached a level that he knew was close to the fossils; he used his hand and a piece of a root to dig the rest of the way until he reached the fossils. “I was excited to see the entire base of my little hole was brightly covered in purple fossils,” he said.
“I took pictures and contacted Phillips and he advised me to cover the site loosely back up so that the oxygen would not damage the fossils that were just uncovered.” At this point in time Giammalvo along with Phillips, arranged for a small team of scientists to come out and survey the site.
When the team arrived they went out to the site to study and look over the site. The team of scientists, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), and volunteers started taking notes and pictures.
Not long after the teams met on site Giammalvo heard from the MDEQ lead James Starnes and also Phillips. They told him that this was something they would like to proceed with excavating the site and finding more of the fossils.
Recently, after a thorough study of these fossils scientist are considering this fossil to belong to a prehistoric whale known as the Zygorhiza whale. This whale is predicted to be 20 feet long and weighed upward of one ton. The whale is said to have been swimming the waters around 35 to 40 million years ago. It has a long narrow body with a long head.
In 2002 at the Clearview Landfill, some very large and unusual bones were discovered which were determined to be a whale of the same species except twice as big known as the Basilosaurus.
The Basilosaurus and the Zygorhiza are the state fossils of Mississippi. These two full size fossils are showcased at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.