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April 27, 2008

News Article: Fredricksburg.com

By COREY BYERS
Date published: 4/27/2008

Caroline Economic Development Director Gary Wilson wants to make a full-scale reproduction of a prehistoric whale found in Carmel Church the focal point of the county's new visitors center come August.
The arrival of the 28-foot reproduction, however, hinges on raising $125,000 in donations. Wilson is working to solicit funds from corporations in Caroline to make the display a reality.

He wants the lifelike skeleton to be the main draw for a mini-exhibit on the wealth of fossils found in Caroline. Many of them date back 14 million years--when the area was a seabed.

"I think if you're a traveler and you're driving along, you'll see it and say 'Wow! What is that?'" Wilson says of the whale.

Wilson believes it could help draw more than 250,000 visitors to the center each year. That's close to 700 people for each day it's open.

He's also pitching it as a good way for businesses to cash in on the traffic. Contributors' names will go on a plaque at the center, be included on brochures and get a listing on a county Web site.

"The faster we get [donations], the quicker we can get the whale in," he said Friday.

While there is no hard deadline for donations, Wilson said the county is off to a good start. So far, he said, the project has received $25,000 from Caroline landowners Richard and Kathy Thompson.

Alton Dooley, assistant curator of paleontology for the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, said the whale bones were unearthed in Carmel Church in 1991. Exploration has continued at the former commercial quarry operated by Martin Marietta Aggregates since, producing fossils of other land and sea creatures, he said.

Dooley and his staff have identified 50 different species at the quarry, including whales, sharks, dolphins, marine crocodiles, stingrays, three-toed horses, tapirs and animals similar to deer.

Last month, his team unearthed camel fossils. He said thousands of other specimens from the Miocene epoch were found, too, but have yet to be identified.

And that's just from an area of about 3,000 square feet--roughly the size of a four-bedroom house.

"Probably something like two-thirds of land animals from this time period [discovered in] Virginia are from this site," Dooley said.

The reproduction Wilson hopes to display is of an eobalaenoptera, what Dooley describes as a baleen or filter-feeding whale. Similar baleen whales include the humpback and blue whale.

Fourteen million years ago, Dooley said, Carmel Church was under the Atlantic Ocean. The shoreline extended a few miles past where Interstate 95 is today.

He said the Caroline site has one of the densest deposits of fossil and skeletal material and one of the richest bone beds east of the Mississippi River. At other dig sites in coastal plains, Dooley said fossils are usually excavated quickly.

"Carmel Church is the only place where we can keep going back to the same spot over and over again and we're going to find more stuff," Dooley said.

There are only two other fossils like this available in the country--one at the Virginia Museum of Natural History and the other, not on display, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Dooley said most fossils found are not complete skeletons. For example, the Carmel Church dig turned up parts of the whale's backbone, but not the entire animal.

So Dooley's team will turn to other collections to mold the rest of the visitor's center model.

The remaining $100,000 Wilson needs will go to pay a museum subcontractor to build the display model.

"Part of the skeleton is an exact replica, part of it is modeling based on the same species and parts like the tip of tail, we don't know what it looks like so we'll use the closest living species," Dooley said.

Wilson said when he gets the reproduction and other smaller fossils, he wants to rotate exhibits periodically. In other words, keep the visitors coming in.

"It keeps everything lively and fresh," Wilson said. "What's the latest found is always a reason to come back and see the new thing."

Corey Byers: 540/735-1976
Email: cbyers@freelancestar.com

 

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