Smithsonian Paleontologist Eyeballs Whale Fossil on Reddit

One Internet user's rock collection became significantly more impressive after an unexpected fossil revelation

A Q-and-A session on Reddit veered into ancient territory when a Smithsonian scientist guessed a bone in a photo shared by one user could be more than 11 million years old.

The Atlantic first reported about Smithsonian's Nick Pyenson's exchange with a user during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session.

The paleontologist, who solved the mystery of a massive whale cemetery in the middle of a Chilean desert, signed on to the social news site Friday to discuss his new paper and answer questions about his job.

“Ask me about my work, or about ancient marine mammals like walrus whales, aquatic sloths or mini seals,” he wrote. “Or what it’s like to get paid to dig in the dirt in some pretty cool places.”

Users’ questions ranged from PBS’ Dr. Scott to Isla Nublar to pieces of career advice.

But the most intriguing question came from user redditninemillion, who shared a photo of a bone found on "a field trip in middle school."

“My science teacher at the time told me he thought it was a very old whale vertebrae [sic]. Is that what you think it is? I always kind of hoped it was a dinosaur bone," the user posted.

Redditninemillion’s inquiry included a photo of a bone on a table, which was posted on image-hosting service Imgur (shown at right).

Next to some food -- perhaps for scale -- the bone appeared larger than not just the user’s food, but the food’s containers, too.

Pyenson responded: “Whoa! That is a whale vertebra! Probably belongs to a baleen whale. It looks like its [sic] fossilized. Where did you find it?”

Redditninemillion stepped on the bone while wading in shallow water at a beach in Calvert Cliffs, Md., according to the post.

This was no surprise to Pyenson, as he said the sea cliffs along the coast of Calvert County have yielded scads of marine mammal fossils over the last century.

Added Pyenson: “You’ve found a ~14-11 million year old fossil whale vertebra!”

Some users on Reddit said it was surprising redditninemillion’s science teacher was able to
identify the bone as a whale vertebra.

“Sounds like you had an awesome teacher,” wrote Plecboy. “I imagine that sort of specialist knowledge isn’t a normal thing for science teachers.”

“His name is John Fuller and he was a legendary teacher at our school,” the original poster wrote in response. “We built potato canons [sic], pumpkin catapults, blew things up every day, and built cardboard boats that we raced across the school pond.”

Before Pyenson signed off, redditninemillion wondered about taking the potentially ages-old bone to the Smithsonian in D.C.

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