The 30 million-year-old snout is a mystery.
It closes to a point, the nasal bone is in the wrong place. It’s just not like any other whale fossil in the world. It was pulled out of the ground at Shadowmoss Plantation in West Ashley a quarter century ago.
Since then, researchers have gone to the cabinets in the warehouse-like store room of the Charleston Museum, comparing it with other fossil finds, trying to determine species and genus. That’s where it has stayed, one of dozen yet-to-be-named ancient whale fossils in a natural history collection of more than 200,000 specimens.
Astonishingly enough, most of them are Lowcountry discoveries. Few have ever been on public display.
That just changed.
“From Land to Sea: 35 Million Years of Whale Evolution” has opened in the museum’s lobby gallery, and will be there until Aug. 10. It’s the first display in a new direction for the museum, to prominently feature its “back lot” collection of amazing, pre-historic Lowcountry finds.
The idea is to place permanent and rotating Lowcountry-origin specimens in their own Hall of Natural History, planned to open in 2017. Fundraising for the hall has already begun, said Carl Borick, museum director.
Hovering over the hall will be the fossil skeleton of the biggest bird ever to fly, a species also still unnamed, which was found at Charleston International Airport. The bird — with a wingspan wider than a giraffe is tall — now is on display in an upper floor gallery
It’s not widely known that whales are a sort of evolution in reverse. The general movement of species over time was from sea to land. Whales went the other way, said Matthew Gibson, museum natural history curator. Their closest modern relative is the hippopotamus, a semi-aquatic animal.
The Land to Sea exhibit traces that evolution. The displays compare differences in blowhole location, teeth and skull shapes over time. Nearly all the fossils displayed came from the ground under resident’s feet today, which was ocean floor a long time ago. One of the teeth is estimated to be 35 million years old.
They were found at the Charleston airport, in Summerville, at a Berkeley County quarry — all over the place.
“It’s incredible,” said Ron Stewart, visiting from St. Louis. “We’re from the Midwest and there’s nothing like this.”
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