MONROE COUNTY, Ala. (WKRG) — For about 30 million years a whale skeleton hid below the surface of the earth on what is today farmland in south Alabama until a high school student uncovered the rare find.

Lindsey Stallworth, a junior at the Alabama School of Math and Science in Mobile, has collected fossils on her family’s Monroe County farm since she was a child.

“We would go out and pick up shark teeth and fossil shells, but we never knew anyone that could tell us anything about them,” said Stallworth. “We just thought they were cool.”

Andrew Gentry, a paleontologist and a member of the ASMS biology faculty, has studied Alabama fossils since he was a child and recently led research into a newly-discovered species of pre-historic freshwater turtle. Stallworth brought Gentry some of her finds.

“I immediately recognized one of the fossil shark teeth Lindsey showed me,” said Gentry, “and I wanted to know more about where she found it.”

This summer, Gentry went to Stallworth’s family farm, which Gentry recognized as one of the best fossil sites in the state. After only a few hours of searching, Stallworth and Gentry followed a trail of small bones up a hill where they found much larger bones protruding from the eroded soil.

Stallworth and Gentry, with a few helpers, spent June and July excavating the site. Because the whale is so large, they have only recovered the skull. They plan to return to the site next summer, to continue a dig they expect to take three to four years.

“If the complete skeleton is there, it could take several years before we have the entire animal back in the lab,” Gentry said.

The team takes their recovered fossils to ASMS’s newly-renovated Makerspace, where students and faculty collaborate in a robotics studio, classroom for STEM research, and a paleontology lab. Thanks to a Research Fellows Program, Stallworth will continue working alongside Gentry cleaning, repairing and studying the whale.

“The Research Fellows Program allows Lindsey to gain real-world experience in scientific research and even present that research at professional conferences,” said Gentry. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a high school student to stand out when applying to college and maybe even discover a new career path.”