Finding the ancient bones of a huge mystery animal buried in the middle of a rainforest makes for a pretty exciting discovery. But this tale from Down Under had a surprising twist: it turns out the subterranean skeleton belonged to a whale ... one that was buried relatively recently. 

Large vertebrae and rib from the carcass. Image: Peter Whitehead/James Cook University.

The strange remains were discovered earlier this month by a contractor in Kuranda, a small town in Far North Queensland that shares its borders with World Heritage rainforest. Perplexed by the find, the contractor sent photographs of the bones to experts at James Cook University (JCU), who initially pegged them as prehistoric. 

"The size of the bones showed that they were too big for any modern terrestrial fauna," explains JCU geologist Peter Whitehead. "The only other possibility was ancient megafauna." 

Whitehead is not a palaeontologist, however, so he was hesitant to make any guesses about what species the bones may have belonged to. Instead, he set off for Kuranda to try to find out more.

The initial hunch quickly began to unravel once he got to the site: the rocks weren't right, the bones hadn't fossilised, and hiding beneath the remains were several hessian bags (that's burlap to you North Americans), each filled to the brim with a mysterious pale sludge.

"It was immediately apparent that the bones were modern," recalls Whitehead. "The contractor then recognised the gelatinous white substance as being rotting whale blubber. It was a WTF moment. The implication was that someone had buried a whale, which was then re-excavated some decades after. What were the odds of that happening?" 

Bones lie next to bits of decomposing blubber. Images: Peter Whitehead/James Cook University
Non-mineralised internal bone structure. Image: Peter Whitehead/James Cook University

Kuranda lies over ten miles from the ocean, so whoever had carted this heavy creature inland would have needed specialist gear, a lot of time time and (presumably) a good reason.

As the story began to circulate online, it sparked plenty of conjecture. Maybe the bones were buried by the Djabugay, a tribe of Aboriginal people who have called these lands home for centuries? Perhaps it was a poaching coverup? Or was it simply an elaborate prank?


The truth turned out to be less dramatic – and more sombre. 

Queensland's Department of Environment and Heritage Protection eventually revealed that the rainforest whale was in fact the same individual that famously stranded near the Trinity Inlet close to central Cairns 17 years ago.

The eight-metre Bryde's whale (Balaenoptera edeni) died soon after stranding, and an autopsy found its stomach was packed with a massive amount of plastic debris, including many plastic bags. (The sad event was later spotlighted as part of an anti-littering campaign that focused on plastic's impact on wildlife.)

As we know firsthand, disposing of a 40-ton animal can be tricky, so this cetacean's final resting place was chosen out of necessity. The whale (quite literally) had too much junk in the trunk.

"I believe that after the autopsy on the whale, it was too big to go to the dump," says Whitehead. "But one of the National Parks and Wildlife Service employees was related to the property owner in Kuranda, where there was plenty of room to bury a whale in a location where it would remain undisturbed." 

Or so they thought. 

The JCU team have since recovered a few bones from the dig to keep as a curiosity. Now, with any luck, and the case closed, the whale can finally rest in peace after its second burial.


Top header image: Jolene Bertoldi/Wikimedia Commons