Smithsonian finds extinct river dolphin skull in its collection

A cetacean skull, which had been left to the Smithsonian more than half a century ago, may belong to an undiscovered species of prehistoric dolphin.

James Di Loreto/Smithsonian
The skull of Arktocara yakataga on an 1875 ethnographic map of Alaska. Near the skull of Arktocara is a cetacean tooth, likely belonging to a killer whale (Orcinus orca) and an Oligocene whale tooth. The ancient dolphin fossil is believed to be related to modern ocean-dwelling river dolphins.

Sometimes, the most fascinating scientific discoveries happen not out in the field, but in dusty archives and museum boxes.

Smithsonian paleontologists have identified a cetacean skull, which had been left to the museum more than half a century ago, as belonging to an undiscovered species of prehistoric dolphin. The new species, described Tuesday in the journal PeerJ, may be a distant relative of modern South Asian river dolphins.

"All the time, we find new things in the collections that answer old questions," said lead author Alexandra Boersma in a statement.

A little more than 60 years ago, United States Geological Survey geologist Donald Miller was mapping Alaska's Yakutat borough when he came upon a damaged prehistoric skull. He shipped the specimen to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where it would remain for the rest of the 20th century. That is, until Dr. Boersma and fellow Smithsonian paleontologist Nicholas Pyenson found it in the museum archives.

Despite its broken snout, it was clear that the skull belonged to some type of ancient dolphin. The remarkably old fossil, researchers hoped, would answer questions about whale evolution in the Oligocene time period. The skull's place of discovery also enticed researchers: The fossil record of marine mammals is extremely limited at high-latitude areas such as Alaska, so this was a rare find.

And, as it turns out, a totally new one.

Boersma and Dr. Pyenson say the animal was likely related to platanistoids, the ocean-dwelling descendants of modern river dolphins. They named the new species Arktocara yakataga: Arktocara combines the Greek and Latin words for "north" and "face," and yakataga is the Tlingit name for the region where the fossil was discovered. Boersma and Pyenson dated the skull to 24 million to 29 million years old, and also made the specimen available as a 3-D model.

This isn't the first time a major discovery was made from an old fossil collection. In 2015, researchers from Imperial College London were able to extract intact blood cells from dinosaur bone fragments. The bones had been housed in the Natural History Museum of London for more than a century.

An unusual looking beaked whale that washed up on Alaskan shores in 2014 was identified as belonging to a new whale species. Further investigation revealed that skeletons of the previously misidentified whale already hung in Alaskan high school and another at the Smithsonian.

The dolphin fossil archival discovery is not the first for Boersma and Pyenson. In 2015, they announced a previously unknown species of ancient sperm whale from fossils found in Smithsonian storage. The animal’s massive jaws and teeth, discovered near Santa Barbara in 1925, had originally been identified as belonging to a walrus.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.