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Late at night on a deserted beach, she found a 15 million-year-old fossil

Emily Bzdyk discovered the fossilized skull of a 15-million-year-old dolphin-like creature on a Maryland beach this month. (Calvert Marine Museum)
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Emily Bzdyk and a friend were combing a deserted Maryland beach late on a Saturday night earlier this month when the beam of her headlamp cut across what looked like a bone near the rippling tide line.

Fossil hunters like the pair have been pulling prehistoric shark and skate teeth as well as bone shards of other long extinct sea animals from the Calvert Cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay for years. But what Bzdyk had stumbled upon was rare — and possibly unprecedented.

The sand had pulled back from the clay underlying the beach, Bzdyk said, revealing the fragment. When she took a closer look, she noticed another bit of exposed bone. A pattern emerged: It looked like a large skull, measuring roughly 2½ feet long and weighing about 50 pounds.

“I was very excited when I figured what it might be,” said Bzdyk, a volunteer at the Calvert Marine Museum on Solomons Island. “I had never found anything so put together. I always find fragments of bones.”

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Bzdyk snapped a photo and quickly sent it to Stephen Groff, an assistant paleontology collection manager at the museum. The fossil, it turned out, was a remarkably intact skull of a 15 million-year-old, now-extinct dolphin-like creature that once swam in a shallow sea that covered most of Maryland.

Groff said the Aug. 5 discovery was like hitting the fossil jackpot.

Rarely are skulls found in such complete condition, and Bzdyk just happened on it at the right moment, while it was exposed but before it was damaged by waves. What’s more, there’s a small possibility that the specimen is from a yet undiscovered species.

Fewer than 100 skulls of this type have been found, Groff said, and one of this caliber is discovered only once every few years at Calvert Cliffs. He said skulls are scientifically significant because they provide a wealth of information that allows scientists to determine the exact species the skull is from, which is not true of some other bones.

Groff said the skull probably was buried quickly after the animal died, allowing it to remain intact for millions of years.

“With fossils, it’s all a game of chance,” he said. “It’s managed to survive the test of time. … We got lucky here.”

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The skull will be put on display at the Calvert Marine Museum.

Bzdyk said she was hunting fossils on a Saturday night because the tide was low, which makes conditions favorable for discoveries. Also important: Her husband was able to watch their two children. Bzdyk said it was the first time she had gone fossil hunting at night.

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Bzdyk and Groff said they returned to the scene the next day to excavate the fossil. They dug around the bones but kept them in place and left some sediment on them to keep them intact. They then wrapped the skull in paper towels and plaster medical bandages, called a “field jacket.” They cut the bones out of the beach and transported them to the Calvert Marine Museum.

Over the coming months, Bzdyk said, she will painstakingly scrape away the sediment to reveal the complete skull. Visitors can watch her carry on the work. Once finished, experts will be able to determine whether the animal is indeed a new species or a known one.

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Groff said the animal is from a group called the odontocetes, which include dolphins, porpoises and toothed whales. There were four known species of odontocetes that roamed the ancient seas near Calvert County, Groff said, and while most likely the fossil belongs to one of those four species, it’s possible it belongs to another.

Such animals had an extended rostrum, or beaklike growth, that allowed them to swat at fish like a swordfish or dig through the mud to look for food, Groff said. They were about 12 to 15 feet long and lived in the area between about 12 and 20 million years ago, during a period known as the Miocene. Groff said he did not know why the animals went extinct.

“This is a notable find,” he said.