Stephen Godfrey points to the eye cavity in the 12-million-year-old skull of the now extinct dolphin species, Lophocetus pappus. View a slideshow of the fossil here.
SOLOMONS, Md.—Amateur fossil hunter Noah Hill and his mom were walking along the beach near Calvert Cliffs this February during a period of unusually low tides when they spotted something odd.
It was the top of what is believed to be a 12-million-year-old skull of the extinct dolphin species Lophocetus pappus, only the third such specimen ever found.
The fossil is being preserved and studied by a team of experts led by Stephen Godfrey, curator of the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons.
Although unexpected, the discovery didn't come as a shock to Godfrey, given the area's bounty of fossils from the Miocene Epoch, which occurred between 8 million and 18 million years ago.
The cliffs contain fossils from as many as 30 different species of whales and dolphins, said David Bohaska, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian Museum of National History.
Bohaska described Calvert Cliffs as "world renowned," and said paleontologists from as far away as New Zealand visit them regularly. Because the fossil was found below the mean high tide (in other words, it was usually covered by water) Godfrey didn't have to ask for the property owner's permission to excavate. That allowed his team to remove the fossil before it was destroyed by the waves.
But they aren't always that lucky.
"We're required, of course, to actually get permission on private land and occasionally we lose something because people say no," Bohaska said.
Bohaska has tried to preserve the Calvert Cliffs' coast with mixed success. He said he worries that a second generation of landowners will sell their land to developers.
The result would be the loss of history and present beauty.
"It would be as if you had a book and started ripping pages out of the book and said those pages aren't important," Godfrey said. "The fewer pages you have access to, the less of that story you are able to tell."