Rare fossil whale unearthed by Alabama School of Math and Science student

Published: Aug. 29, 2023 at 8:09 AM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - A high school student and her biology teacher recently discovered a 30-million-year-old fossil whale skeleton on a farm owned by the student’s family in Monroe County.

The whale, which could be 20 feet long, will take at least three to four years to excavate and could be a first-of-its-kind find in Alabama.

Lindsey Stallworth, now a junior at the Alabama School of Math and Science in Mobile, has been collecting fossils on her family’s land for as long as she can remember.

“We would go out and pick up shark teeth and fossil shells, but we never knew anyone that could tell us anything about them,” said Stallworth. “We just thought they were cool.”

Fortunately, one of the biology faculty members at ASMS, Dr. Andrew Gentry, is a paleontologist who has studied Alabama fossils since childhood. He is part of a distinguished three-member department at the school, and just last year, Gentry made headlines for leading the research into a previously unknown species of giant freshwater turtle that inhabited the state during the time of the dinosaurs.

After learning of Dr. Gentry’s research interests, Lindsey brought a few of the fossils she had collected to class to see if her professor could tell her more about them. “I immediately recognized one of the fossil shark teeth Lindsey showed me,” said Gentry, “and I wanted to know more about where she found it.”

Once school ended for the summer, Gentry traveled to the Stallworth’s farm and was amazed by the quantity and variety of fossils on the property.

“I’ve been collecting fossils in Alabama for more than 30 years, and this was easily one of the best fossil sites I’ve seen anywhere in the state,” Gentry said. After only a few hours of searching, Gentry says he noticed tiny pieces of fossilized bone scattered over a small hillside. “I followed the trail of bone fragments up the hill, and it led right to several large bones eroding out of the soil.”

Lindsey Stallworth, now a junior at the Alabama School of Math and Science, and Dr. Andrew...
Lindsey Stallworth, now a junior at the Alabama School of Math and Science, and Dr. Andrew Gentry, a paleontologist who has studied Alabama fossils since childhood, are pictured with the plastered skull slab after a rare fossil whale was unearthed in Monroe County.(ASMS)

Gentry, Lindsey and a few helpers spent most of June and July carefully excavating the fossilized remains and transporting them back to ASMS’s newly renovated Makerspace, where students and faculty collaborate on projects while sharing ideas, equipment, and knowledge. The ASMS Makerspace houses a robotics studio, a paleontology lab and a classroom for STEM research.

Due to the whale’s size, the team has only recovered the skull so far but plans to return next summer to excavate more of the skeleton.

“If the complete skeleton is there, it could take several years before we have the entire animal back in the lab,” Gentry said.

Thanks to a unique Research Fellows Program available to high-achieving students at ASMS, Lindsey can now work alongside Dr. Gentry cleaning, repairing, and studying the fossil whale. “The Research Fellows Program allows Lindsey to gain real-world experience in scientific research and even present that research at professional conferences,” says Gentry. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a high school student to stand out when applying to college and maybe even discover a new career path.”

Source: Alabama School of Math and Science