Scott Ludden was cruising along in his boat one weekend in May when he spotted something big and gray jutting out from the sands of Little Talbot Island State Park about 17 miles northeast of Jacksonville.
"Look at that palm tree," he said. "That's cool." Then he blurted out, "No wait, that's a bone!"
Ludden snapped some photos of the 13 1/2-foot-long bone and sent them to the University of North Florida. Eventually the photos made their way to state and federal whale experts.
They recognized what Ludden had found as resembling the mandible, or jawbone, of a right whale, a species so imperiled that there are only 450 or so left in the world. Right whales spend part of the year in the Atlantic Ocean off New England, but from December to March they swim down the East Coast to Florida to give birth to their calves. One scientist called what Ludden found "an extraordinary discovery."
But there's a mystery surrounding it.
The Florida Museum of Natural History already has a right whale mandible in its collection. The mandible in the museum is a right mandible. The one found on Little Talbot Island is a left mandible. Both were found on a barrier island near Jacksonville. Were they both from the same island?
It's hard to say, said Verity Mathis, who is in charge of the mammals collection at the museum. "We don't have a whole lot of information about it," she said.
They do know that the bone in the museum was found in January 1907. Does that mean this new bone lay buried in the sand for more than a century? Is it from the same whale?
According to state wildlife commission marine mammal biologist Tom Pitchford, the bone Ludden found is, "at least superficially, a match to one in the collection of the Florida Museum of Natural History." To find out for sure, though, the scientists delivered it to the museum on June 25 in hopes of doing a DNA test on both bones.
The DNA test can reveal more than just whether the two bones match, according to Teri Rowles, marine mammal health coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"DNA can provide us with other information, such as the sex and age of the animal and confirmation of the species — that it is indeed a right whale," she said. "Additionally if it is matched to a known individual, we may also be able to determine a timeframe in which the whale died and information about the life of the animal. We may be able to determine the genetic makeup of the population at the time of the animal's death."
According to Pitchford, there are a lot of dead whales buried in sandy beaches around the state. They washed ashore dying or dead, and then were cut open and examined by scientists trying to determine what killed them. Then the carcass was buried.
At first, scientists thought that what Ludden had found was one such dead whale. But an examination of 30 years of records of whale strandings failed to find one from that same location, Pitchford said.
"That sent us down a different path," he said.
They began examining old nautical charts of the island, showing how its sandy beaches had waxed and waned over the years. Barrier islands move back and forth, pushed by winds and waves.
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"The current configuration of the land there is different from the way it was," Mathis said.
That helped them determine that the bone had most likely wound up there prior to 1935 — and then someone remembered the other jawbone in the museum, Pitchford said.
Thousands of right whales once populated the ocean, but whaling to harvest their oil for lamp fuel nearly wiped them out. Whalers gave Eubalaena glacialis its common name: They were the "right" whale to hunt because they move slowly, migrate near shore and stay afloat after death.
Although they have been protected from whaling since 1935, only 450 remain. There are so few right whales left that the New England Aquarium has cataloged them all like death row convicts in a mug book.
These days, when right whales die, it's usually because they were hit by a ship — like manatees, they are hard to spot from the water — or because they became tangled in fishing gear that tightens as they grow, eventually slicing into their flesh. Six right whales have died so far this month in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada, prompting Canadian officials to clamp down on ship speeds there.
So where did this particular right whale come from? "That's the million dollar question," Pitchford said.
Although whalers did ply the ocean off Florida in previous centuries, Pitchford said he thinks the whale bones that turned up on Little Talbot Island have a more prosaic origin: "The most plausible explanation is that a dead whale drifted ashore and landed there. But it may have been cut up by locals over time."
Back then people used the right whales' blubber to fuel lamps and their baleen was used for corsets and other products, Pitchford said. So no one knows if Florida settlers scavenged the carcass and then left it to sink under the waves or if they buried it.
Erosion of the beach eventually uncovered the portion of the mandible that Ludden spotted. Pitchford said when he and other scientists were at the beach measuring and excavating the bone, "boaters walked over to look and they thought it was a shipwreck timber."
More bones may still like hidden on Little Talbot Island, he added.
"Our presumption is that the rest of the skeleton is still lying under the sand," he said. But because it's in a state park, scientists don't plan on excavating the whole thing. Instead, he said, "we will be going back to the site to monitor it over time and see if the erosion exposes more bones."
Contact Craig Pittman at email@example.com. Follow @craigtimes.