September 26, 2008
Fossilized Whale Brain Photos
I love the internet. I posted about seeing a fossilized whale brain at the Natural History Museum, then wrote that I wish I had taken a photo. And, lo and behold, the very next day there were photos of the fossilized whale brain in my inbox! How cool is that!?
The photos came from Bob Mac Gillivray, the grandson of the man who found the specimen. In addition to sending the photos he was kind enough to tell me some of the story behind this amazing find. Bob's grandfather found it sometime between 1918 and 1948 at his old ranch in Los Olivos (about 2 miles from Michael Jackson's Neverland). In the late 70s-early 80s Bob's parents took it to the museum after several neurologists had said they were certain it was a brain. But the curator at the time told them it was just brain coral--apparently brain coral fossils are relatively common. The family remained convinced that they had something special but it wasn't until about five or six months ago, when Bob brought it out to show his wife's 11-year-old cousin, that he decided to try again.
The following Monday he took some photographs and did a bit of research on where he could find the foremost marine mammal expert in the United States. Time and time again Bob was directed to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. So, he wrote the staff a note, sent some photos and a week or later found himself in Los Angeles meeting with the entire scientific staff of the museum. It was during this meeting that Bob realized his grandfather had found something truly extraordinary. "These seasoned scientists had trouble staying in their chairs," he wrote. "Never before has anything like this ever been discovered. Before this specimen it was just accepted that soft tissue cannot fossilize."
The brain appears to be from a Miocene Sperm Whale that lived 10-12 million years ago. They estimate that it was about 80 feet long, which is really big for that time and enormous for our present time (nowadays a large bull will grow to about 60 feet). And to make the discovery even more exciting, a Miocene Sperm Whale had never been found in that particular strata before. They usually find baleen whales.
The scientist we met at the museum, the one who is working with the fossil, said the museum is trying figure out the value of the specimen now. As far as he's concerned, though, it's priceless.