Scientists to Dig Up Mysterious Ancient Whale: 'Don't Know What We'll Find'

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The skeleton of a huge, ancient whale has been identified by scientists using ground-penetrating radar technology, and researchers are planning to excavate the resting place of the dead sea creature in an attempt to shed light on the mysterious find.

The whale specimen, thought to date back to about 1,000 years ago, is located in the municipality of Viareggio—a seaside city in Tuscany, northwestern Italy.

The skeleton's location is around 1.2 miles away from the modern day coast. The spot would have been closer to the sea when the whale died.

"The whale probably stranded on this ancient beach," Giovanni Bianucci, a paleontologist from the University of Pisa who will lead the upcoming excavations, told Newsweek.

A blue whale fin
File photo of the fin of a blue whale. An ancient whale skeleton has been discovered in Italy. iStock

The first signs that an ancient animal lay below the surface came in 2007 when agricultural excavations in the area uncovered, by chance, four large vertebrae.

Judging by the shape and size of the vertebrae, the whale from which these bones came could have measured around 66 feet in length, Bianucci said. But a key question remains: the vertebrae could belong to either a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) or a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus).

In the years following the discovery of the vertebrae, researchers from the University of Pisa and the University of Parma have conducted surveys using ground-penetrating radar technology.

These surveys identified the presence of "significant parts" of the skeleton, Bianucci said. Despite this, no further pieces have been collected, with most of it remaining underground, buried a few feet beneath the surface where a new swimming pool and sports center are set to be built.

Since the vertebrae were discovered, several Italian researchers have worked to try and find a way to dig up the fossil, and in the coming months excavations will finally begin after the municipality of Viareggio decided to finance a dig.

"It's still all very speculative—we don't know exactly what we'll find underground," Bianucci said.

Ancient whale vertebrae
Vertebrae from the ancient whale that were uncovered in Viareggio, Italy. The whale in question would likely have measured more than 65 feet in length. Giovanni Bianucci

Because the whale skeleton is only thought to be 1,000 years old, it is considered to be a subfossil rather than a true fossil. The term "subfossil" is used to refer 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 could be "of great scientific importance" for several reasons, primarily related to the large size of the specimen.

If the creature turns out to be a fin whale, it would be larger than those that are currently present in the Mediterranean Sea.

"[The skeleton] could, in fact, confirm the hypothesis, based on some fossil and archaeological finds, that in the past the fin whales of the Mediterranean were larger and more diversified than the current ones," Bianucci said. "In the Mediterranean, the fin whale... rarely reaches 20 meters (66 feet) in length."

But the find could have other implications if scientists determine that it is, instead, a blue whale skeleton.

"The blue whale no longer lives in the Mediterranean. If it's a blue whale, it could be the last survivor in the Mediterranean."

To determine the species of whale, a systematic study based on the characteristics of the skull and/or an analysis of ancient DNA—if preserved—will be required, Bianucci said.

Studying the skeleton could also shed light on the causes that have led to the drastic reduction of baleen whales in the Mediterranean. The baleen whale group comprises 16 species, including fin and blue whales.

"[The skeleton] could represent an important element for reconstructing the effects of human impact and recent climatic evolution on the Mediterranean ecosystem," Bianucci said.

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