The skeleton of a giant, ancient whale has been identified by scientists using ground-penetrating radar technology, and researchers plan to excavate the dead sea creature’s resting place to shed light on the mysterious find.
The whale specimen, believed to date from around 1,000 years ago, is located in the municipality of Viareggio, a coastal town in Tuscany, north-west Italy.
The location of the skeleton is about 2 km from the present coast. The spot would have been closer to the sea when the whale died.
“The whale is probably stranded on this ancient beach,” said Giovanni Bianucci, a University of Pisa paleontologist who will lead the upcoming dig news week.
The first signs that an ancient animal lay beneath the surface came in 2007 when four large vertebrae were accidentally uncovered during agricultural excavations in the area.
Judging by the shape and size of the vertebrae, the whale these bones came from may have been about 66 feet long, Bianucci said. But a key question remains: the vertebrae could either belong to a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) or a blue whale (Balaenoptera Musculus).
In the years since the eddies were discovered, researchers from the University of Pisa and the University of Parma have been conducting investigations using ground-penetrating radar technology.
Those investigations identified the presence of “significant portions” of the skeleton, Bianucci said. Despite this, no further pieces were collected, most of which remained underground, buried a few meters below the surface where a new swimming pool and sports center are to be built.
Since the vortices were discovered, several Italian researchers have been working to find a way to unearth the fossil, and in the coming months excavations will finally begin after the municipality of Viareggio decided to fund an excavation.
“It’s still all very speculative — we don’t know exactly what we’re going to find underground,” Bianucci said.
Because the whale skeleton is believed to be only 1,000 years old, it is considered a subfossil rather than a true fossil. The term “subfossil” refers to the remains of animals that are not old enough to be considered true fossils but may still be partially fossilized.
Bianucci said the skeleton may be “of great scientific importance” for several reasons, mainly related to the size of the specimen.
Should the creature turn out to be a fin whale, it would be larger than those currently found in the Mediterranean.
“[The skeleton] may actually confirm the hypothesis based on some fossil and archaeological finds that Mediterranean fin whales were larger and more diverse in the past than today,” Bianucci said. “In the Mediterranean the fin whale. .. rarely reaches a length of 20 meters (66 feet).
However, the find could have other implications if scientists discover it is a blue whale skeleton instead.
“The blue whale no longer lives in the Mediterranean. If it’s a blue whale, it could be the last survivor in the Mediterranean.”
Determining the cetacean species requires systematic study based on the characteristics of the skull and/or analysis of ancient DNA — if preserved — if preserved, Bianucci said.
Examination of the skeleton could also shed light on the causes that led to the drastic decline in baleen whales in the Mediterranean. The baleen whale group includes 16 species, including fin and blue whales.
“[The skeleton] could represent an important element to reconstruct the impact of human influence and recent climatic evolution on the Mediterranean ecosystem,” said Bianucci.