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Four ribs sticking out of forest floor lead students to massive discovery in Taiwan

Walking through the tropical forest of southern Taiwan, an archaeologist and a local collector set off on a treasure hunt. Amid the moss-covered rocks and lush greenery, something caught the pair’s attention.

Geologist Yang Zirui, a professor at National Cheng Kung University, was called to explore the forest in Hengchun with a team of students, the university said in a Monday, Dec. 5 news release. The team found four ribs sticking out of the ground deep in the forest.

The protruding ribs were just the beginning. Zirui led a team of students to fully excavate the area, an intense 90-day project beginning in the summer heat and finishing in October, the release said.

The excavation uncovered a massive whale fossil dating back 85,000 years, experts said. The fossilized whale was almost 50-feet-long and about 70% complete.

The excavation revealed the fossilized vertebra of the whale.
The excavation revealed the fossilized vertebra of the whale.

The team excavated the whale’s vertebra, shoulder blades, back side of the skull and jawbone, Zirui said in the release. The stacked tail vertebrae were particularly well preserved, photos show.

The team working to excavate part of the fossil.
The team working to excavate part of the fossil.

The whale’s jawbone was the largest and heaviest fossil found, the university said. The jawbone was over 7 feet long and weighed over 730 pounds.

Left: The team excavating the whale’s jawbone. Right: A student laying next to the jawbone to show its large size.
Left: The team excavating the whale’s jawbone. Right: A student laying next to the jawbone to show its large size.

After excavating each piece of the skeleton, the team used a stretcher to carry the fossils out of the forest, photos show. The jawbone took twelve people about 7 hours to carry out of the rough terrain, the university said.

The team using a stretcher to carry part of the whale fossil out of the forest.
The team using a stretcher to carry part of the whale fossil out of the forest.

The fossil may belong to a blue whale or big fin whale, two types of whales that lived off the coast of Taiwan millennia ago, Zirui said. The whale fossil — the first of its kind found in Taiwan — was taken to the National Museum of Natural Science for further cleaning and research, the university said.

Hengchun is located on the southernmost tip of Taiwan, about 275 miles south of Taipei.

Google Translate and Baidu Translate were used to translate the news release from National Cheng Kung University.

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