Ancient Whale Fossil Uncovered in Tuscan Vineyard

Maria Cristina Valsecchi in Rome, Italy
for National Geographic News
March 23, 2007
One of Italy's finest wines now has an even bigger claim to fame.

Paleontologists have unearthed the 33-foot-long (10-meter-long) skeleton of an ancient whale under the vineyards of Castello Banfi, one of the producers of the renowned red wine Brunello di Montalcino.

"The skeleton is almost complete and well preserved. That's an uncommon find," said Michelangelo Bisconti, who is supervising the excavation at Banfi, an 11th-century castle near the town of Montalcino in Tuscany.

The find resembles a modern rorqual whale—the group of large baleen whales that includes the blue, humpback, and fin whales—said Bisconti, a paleontologist at the Museum of Natural History of the Mediterranean in Livorno.

(Related: "'Killer' Fossil Find May Rewrite Story of Whale Evolution" [August 16, 2006].)

"The fossil still has not been dated," Bisconti added. "We think it is about five millions years old, from the Pliocene epoch, when Tuscany was the bed of a shallow and warm sea [and] rich of fauna."

Chance Discovery

The discovery was made by Simone Casati, an amateur paleontologist with the Mineralogy and Paleontology Group of Scandicci, who was given special permission to explore the famed vineyards.

"About one month ago I was poking around the area, looking for fossils as usual, when I saw a small piece of bone about 1 centimeter long [0.4 inch] cropping out of the soil," he said.

"It looked like a whale's vertebra, so I started digging. When I saw the full extent of the remains, I called the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Tuscany Region."

Now Casati and other volunteers, directed by paleontologist Menotti Mazzini of the University of Florence, are working to unearth and safely store the rest of the fossil.

After the estimated one-month excavation process, paleontologists will painstakingly restore and study the newfound bones, Bisconti, the excavation supervisor, said.

Wine and Whales

Does the surprise find explain the appeal of Brunello di Montalcino wine?

"It reminds us that this rich soil is composed of nutrients and minerals deposited millions of years ago," Cristina Mariani, owner of Castello Banfi's vineyards, told BBC News.

"It's that special earth that gives complexity to our wines."

Mariani has asked Italy's Department of Cultural Heritage for permission to host the fossil and display it to the public in Banfi's museum.

But excavation supervisor Bisconti is more skeptical.

"I don't know the secret of the quality of Brunello di Montalcino wine," he said, "but I think the whale skeleton shouldn't take the credit."

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