Every Thursday, Laboratory Equipment features a Scientist of the Week, chosen from the science industry’s latest headlines. This week’s scientist is Ervan Garrison from the Univ. of Georgia. He and a team discovered a 36,000-year-old whale fossil.
Q: What made you interested in studying the 36,000-year-old whale fossil?
A: The discovery, itself, initiated our more extensive study. We were not expecting a cetacean fossil. We were prepared to find and describe extinct land mammals. Instead, a marine mammal shows up and we had to consider its ramifications for our study of the late Pleistocene coast of what is, today, Georgia.
Q: What are the future implications of your research and findings?
A: We hope to pursue the DNA aspect of these whales. We have been given samples of two much younger gray whales – 8,000 vs. 36,000-years-old – finds from Florida. Our colleagues in Canada say these have a better chance for recovery of their ancient DNA. No Atlantic gray has had genomic data published as yet. Our Dutch colleagues tried with an even older find (40,000 years old, North Sea) but I don't think they were any more successful than we were.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you found in your research?
A: We couldn't, definitively, find the "smoking gun" for the cause of the Atlantic gray's extinction. The "usual suspects" aka 16th century Basque whalers, operating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Labrador, appear to not have been taking this species in any significant numbers. We don't know what drove the species to extinction in the Atlantic. It's a real puzzle. The Norse may be involved. There are historical data to implicate them. The gray is an easy whale to hunt since it migrates and reproduces so close to the coast. They are very predictable so they could have been fairly easy prey for even causal whalers.
Q: What is the take home message of your research and results?
A: Be ready for surprises. Science works that way a lot of the time.
Q: What new technologies did you use in your lab during your research?
A: We were "educated" in the real science of the modern glues used in paleontological and archaeological reconstruction. These polymers are not "household glues." Many are reversible which makes for more accurate reassembly of fragmentary and fragile fossil bones.
Q: What is next for you and your research?
A: We hope to access the North Sea gray whale finds in Rotterdam and Amsterdam museums. We will attempt to compare those recent discoveries with the recent – Georgia and Florida – discoveries. The question we most want to address the genomic resemblance of the Atlantic and Pacific populations as well as the western vs. eastern North Atlantic populations. It is presumed they are conspecific but that is hypothesized – not proven.