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Hurricane unearths ancient whale

Days after Hurricane Isabel ravaged the cliffs lining St. Mary's River last year, Jeff DiMeglio and his girlfriend went scouring for shark teeth and found what DiMeglio, an experienced fossil hunter, recognized as the rib of a whale.

He immediately covered the findings and contacted a museum. Heavy erosion from the storm had unearthed the complete fossilized skull of what paleontologists say was an 8-million-year-old whale.

The find is important because little is known about whales of that era, said Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology for the Calvert Marine Museum.

The remains were shown to the media Thursday at the museum, where scientists are carefully chipping away sediment around the 5{-foot skull with hopes of one day putting it on display.

The hurricane that unearthed the fossil last September was Maryland's worst-ever natural disaster, blamed for dozens of deaths and costing the state and local governments at least $275-million.

Most residents were dismayed by the erosion. Not Godfrey: Southern Maryland's cliffs harbor a rich source of marine fossils, including thousands of prehistoric shark teeth and whale bones.

"There is some angst watching the cliffs disappear, but it's great for paleontology," he said.

To free the fossil from the ground, scientists swathed it in burlap and plaster-of-paris, creating a hard cast, then called on the Patuxent Naval Air Station. A search-and-rescue team rappelled from a helicopter, attached the fossil to a cable and flew it out.

Scientists couldn't find the spine of the 18-foot whale but did recover some vertebrae, a neck bone, a fin and a shoulder blade.

Godfrey thinks it was a baleen whale, but he doesn't know if it was an ancestor of modern baleen whales, like the humpback, or part of an extinct line.