When University of Alabama geologists told Catherine Hollingshead they had found the fossilized remains of a gigantic sea creature in her rural front yard, she was just dying to spill the beans.
"I wanted to tell everyone they found bones 70,000 years old right out front of the house, but I had to keep it a secret for 10 days," she said.She let the secret out - just a little bit early - back in March. Then she got a bigger surprise.
First, the bones are the remains of either the largest sea creature of its type ever found or were from an entirely new species, officials said. Secondly, in Hollingshead's excitement she got the age of the bones wrong by a few thousand centuries.
"When the geologists came back I remarked about the 70,000-year-old bones and they said, `Mrs. Hollingshead, that's 70 MILLION years old.' "
Alabama Museum of Natural History curator Kenneth Gaddy said the fossilized bones belong either to a 60-foot mosasaur or to an entirely new species of seagoing reptile that swam the seas of what today is gently rolling Lowndes County farmland, about 50 miles southwest of Montgomery, Ala.
Gaddy said scientists believe the fossil is between 60 million and 70 million years old because of the age of the sediments that surrounded it.
"It's either the largest one of its kind ever found, based on everyone we've ever talked to, or it's a completely new find," Gaddy said.
"Saying mosasaur is like saying monkey," said Gaddy. "You got monkeys of all types." Remains of mosasaurs have been found in Texas, New Jersey and in France.
The nearly complete 6-foot skull and jaw of the slender sea creature found near Hollingshead's home weighed about 10,000 pounds and cropped up at a spot where the state Highway Department excavated fill dirt for a nearby highway.
The excavation two years ago created a gently sloping geological picture of the last 70 million years, including 20 million years' worth of history from an age when warm, shallow seas covered the area. The waters began receding from the Southeast 50 million years ago.
Layering the excavation site are thousands of sea shells from that time, and near the surface of the excavation is the ancient shoreline and 50 million years of dry land. The mosasaur remains were found at the bottom of the excavation site.
The site was found by Jones who was looking for geological areas to show to his students.
"I saw two men down there trespassing when they found it, and they came up to talk to me. I knew one of them because his family lived around here," Hollingshead said.
The three took a walk down her gravel road to the excavation site. The skull of the creature was exposed, and when Hollingshead saw it, her interest In geology soared.