Discovery of unique fossil cemetery in Belgian coastal waters | Flanders Marine Institute
 

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Discovery of unique fossil cemetery in Belgian coastal waters

Oostende (2017.08.17) – In the Belgian coastal waters, near the waterway 'Het Scheur' in front of Zeebrugge, lies a unique location of buried bones of long lost mammals. These include among others the remains of walruses from the last Ice Age (116.000-12.000 years ago) and vertebrates of primal whales from the warm Eocene period (40 million years ago). This was confirmed by exploratory research by the Flanders Marine Institute from the research vessel RV Simon Stevin in July 2017.

Press release by: the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ)

It concerns a highly remarkable discovery. It all began with coincidental findings of bones in the Belgian part of the Westerschelde estuary over the past twenty-five years. The skeletal remains found by Dutch fishermen attracted the attention of paleontologists associated with the Natural History Museum Rotterdam (NMR) and were identified to be originating of walruses and primary whales. The Dutch paleontologists went to ‘Het Scheur’ in search of additional material. All these activities stayed under the radar in Belgium, until the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) came into contact with the Dutch museum's experts via the geological-archaeological project SeArch (www.sea-arch.be). This resulted in two joint pilot campaigns with the Flemish research vessel RV Simon Stevin in July 2017.

Two types of findings are very peculiar:

- First, the location seems the southernmost Pleistocene colony of walrus ever found. With remains of at least 50-100 animals, this finding accounts for about half of all walrus skeleton findings in the North Sea. According to a C14 analysis, the age of the bones is about 45.000 years, although there are good reasons to believe that they may also be older. The fact that the bones are mostly intact and the finding of both males, females and young animals indicate that these sea giants had to have formed a local colony in the cold climate of the last Ice Age. Walruses still live in the high North today near the ice caps, feeding on shellfish and gathering on nearby islands.

- In addition, at least ten vertebra of primal whales have been found in the same area since 1996. Little remains of these primitive marine mammals were yet discovered in Western Europe (only three other sites around the North Sea). The unusual size of the vertebrae with a width of approximately 30 cm, can even point to an undiscovered new species, possibly belonging to the family Protocetidae. It was thought that this family could not or hardly have reached NW-Europe. In any case, these 8-15 meters long hunters made the seas unsafe 40 million years ago in the warm Eocene period. These oldest relatives of modern whales sought back the sea 50 million years ago from the Pakistani mainland (when it was still connected with East Africa). It evolved gradually from an even hoofed animal the size of a dog that only sporadically stayed in sea water, towards a primal whale adapted to live permanently in the marine environment. Some species initially had front and/or hind legs and a long tail. Eventually they would spread across the world's seas and evolve into the whales we know today.

‘Het Scheur’ in front of Zeebrugge is a special site because of a sequence of old soil layers of different ages close to the seabed. The walrus remains are present in Pleistocene deposits. In this Pleistocene Ice Age landscape, the sea level was 20m lower than it is today in the warmer phases, in colder phases even up to 70m lower. Back then, the Schelde estuary did not discharge in the Netherlands as it does today, but more to the south in what is now Zeebrugge and Oostende at the Belgian coast. The landscape looked tundra-like in the colder stages, in the warmer periods there appeared to be forests too. In this widened estuary mouth, large grazers (woolly mammoth, woolly rhino, hippo, aurochs, giant deer, forest elephant, steppe wisent, ...) and numerous predators lived. The coastal waters were populated by, among other things, walruses, gray whales and beluga's.

The scientific campaigns with the Flemish research vessel RV Simon Stevin on 19 and 31 July 2017 confirm this pattern. In addition to eight remains of walruses, the researchers also found bone fragments of wild horse, aurochs, steppe wisent and a roe deer. Finally, a cone of a fossil coniferous tree and lots of shells were collected. In the near future targeted drillings will provide more insight into the geological structure and extent of the specific layers. Also a more precise dating of shell residues and other climate indicators (diatoms, dinoflagellates) are planned research actions. The Flanders Marine Institute wants to do targeted research into the subsoil and to the buried past of the coastal area.

Visual material

Pictures of some findings are available on demand, as well as a map of how the Pleistocene river landscape near “Het Scheur” must have looked.

More information

Science journalist Dieter De Cleene participated in one of the pilot campaigns. His report can be found in the science magazine Eos no. 9, which is available on 17 August 2017. (www.eoswetenschap.eu).

Press contact

Jan Seys (spokesman VLIZ) - GSM: +32-(0)478-37 64 13 - E-mail: jan.seys@vliz.be