College of Charleston researchers say a fossilized skull found in a river outside Mount Pleasant is an entirely new species of ancient whales which lived 30 million years ago.
Coronodon havensteini appears to be a transitional species with strange teeth which may have been used to filter its food in the same method as modern whales use baleen. Baleen are long bristly strands of keratin inside a whale’s mouth and are used to ensnare small seafood such as krill as the whale pushes water out of its mouth. However, early whale ancestors had teeth in the same manner as other aquatic predator mammals.
In 2006, diver Mark Havenstein came across the unusually well-preserved skull while hunting for fossilized shark teeth in the Wando River. Havenstein eventually donated the skull to his alma mater College of Charleston after the school created its Mace Brown Museum of Natural History. The new species is named for its discoverer.
“This is, by far and away, the most spectacular specimen of this species known,” Geology professor Robert Boessenecker told South Carolina Radio Network. “There are a few other specimens where it’s just the back of the skull and a few associated teeth, maybe a bit of the mandible. But this skull is virtually complete.”
The animal would have been comparable in size to a modern orca. But what excited Boessenecker was the unusual shape of the skull’s teeth. Tall and pointed but featuring eight or nine tips, it is shaped more like a crown than tooth. The researchers believe it may have been an early form of filter which predates baleen.
Boessenecker partnered with fellow Charleston professor Jonathan Geisler and Brian Beatty of the New York Institute of Technology. The team published their findings in the research journal Current Biology.
Ancient aquatic fossils are often found across South Carolina’s Lowcountry, often by amateur hunters or construction crews. However, Boessenecker said it is rare for a fossil in such great condition as the Havenstein skull. It is now on display at the Mace Brown museum, which is open every day except Wednesday on the school’s campus.