Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Mississippi's Prehistoric Whales

Many, many years ago (as in many millions of years ago), much of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas was covered by ocean water. As a result, evidence of prehistoric marine life is abundant throughout the region. The largest of the sea creatures which once roamed the warm waters of this ancient sea were species of whales. The discovery in the 20th Century of their skeletal remains in Mississippi and elsewhere caused quite a sensation. Fossils of prehistoric creatures are nothing new, however. In fact, paleontologists and collectors have been digging up Mississippi's geologic past for quite a long time in search of the next great discovery.

No doubt the area's first inhabitants (the native people) were keenly aware of all the odd bones that occasionally popped up, and settlers in the region who put plows in the earth found them in such abundance that they were almost commonplace. In fact, large vertebra from what would later be identified as prehistoric whales were often used as furniture or as filler in house foundations. The first scientific examination of the area's fossils, however, was conducted by Richard Harlan (left). Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1796, Harlan was a naturalist, herpetologist and paleontologist, among other "ists," and a medical doctor. While still a student, he spent a year as a surgeon on board a ship bound for Calcutta, where he marveled at the mysteries of the Euro-Indian culture and remarked with disdain about the "barbarians" of the lower castes. Fascinated with human anatomy, he collected at least one "Hindoo" skull from a funeral pyre (a trophy later thrown overboard by a superstitious crew). Harlan would later make another voyage to Europe to pay homage to his peers in the scientific community, taking time to visit Paris and other French towns, where he found the "villages filthy, streets narrow, [and] the people barbarous and ignorant." Back home, despite his obviously patrician world view, he built a solid reputation as a medical doctor and scientist, where he collected, among other things, human skulls, numbering as many as 275 at one point. It was Harlan, who was also interested in paleontology, who first identified some of the bones that had been collected from the ancient sea beds. The bones and vertebra had been collected from Arkansas, and Harlan named them Basilosaurus, meaning “King reptile.” It was a dramatic find, and Harlan gets credit for the early identification. While he was the first to classify these fossils, he did get one thing wrong: it wasn’t a reptile after all.

It was a prominent British anatomist and paleontologist named Richard Owen who, after studying the spine and other pieces of the “King reptile,” determined that it was in fact a mammal and a prehistoric whale. Because of the type of teeth found with the skeletal remains, Owen renamed it Zeuglodon cetoides (meaning “yoke teeth”). However, according to the protocols of taxonomy, it is the first name given which takes precedence. These days, both the Basilosaurus and the Zeuglodon refer to prehistoric whales of the same general type, though the Zeuglodon is generally smaller. Richard Owen (right) is perhaps best known for coming up with the term “dinosaur” and for establishing the Natural History Museum in London. Although he was on the cutting edge of scientific endeavor in the mid-19th Century, he also had a reputation for being a thoroughly dislikable person. Apparently a bitter and vindictive man, Owen was described by various individuals, including his sometimes rival Charles Darwin, as a “most deceitful and odious man,” a “malicious, dishonest and hateful individual,” “driven by arrogance and jealously,” “dastardly and envious,” and "a damed liar." Despite this, and despite a charge of plagiarism late in his career, Owen was knighted by Queen Victoria and contributed greatly to the study of the prehistoric record.

In 1845, another curious individual made his way South to study and recover these strange bones. Albert Koch, born in Prussia in 1804, immigrated to the United States in 1826 and settled in the German-speaking community of St. Louis. In the mid-1830s, he opened an “museum” establishment which featured a variety of theatrical acts, including magicians and ventriloquists, wax figures, live bears and alligators and an assortment of other oddities. Included in this menagerie was a mastodon skeleton that Koch has unearthed elsewhere in Missouri. When assembled, the mastodon was quite a bit larger than it would have been in real life because Koch added extra parts and (failing that) blocks of wood to fill the creature out. This, of course, was a big hit with the public, but paleontologists were not fooled. Despite this, Koch went to Alabama to look for more bones and unearthed the same type of whale that Harlan had found. When Koch assembled this “monster,” he mistakenly (or purposefully) took parts from several different creatures and built a skeleton that measured 114 feet long! With this great “sea monster” (and others he harvested from the region), Koch (who began calling himself a doctor) exhibited his creatures in New York, New Orleans and other cities. Eventually, he took his show to Europe, where King Friedrich Wilhelm IV was so impressed he purchased the great whale, despite his own scientists’ doubts about the authenticity of the assembled skeleton. In time, only one of Koch’s “immense antediluvian monsters” survives today (the mastodon, located in Richard Owens’ British Museum). The two whales assembled by Koch were lost in the Chicago fire and in the WWII bombing of Berlin, respectively. While Koch was definitely a showman, he did work diligently at uncovering fossil remains in Alabama, and that natural curiosity eventually - over many years - kept the interest in dinosaurs alive in the hearts and minds of the American public until the beginning of the 20th Century, when more scientific expeditions began to explore the fascinating field of paleontology. (To learn more about Koch, there is a fascinating article in Alabama Heritage at

In Mississippi, just as in Alabama, there’s long been an interest in dinosaurs. Back in 1843, about the time Albert Koch was digging up whale bones in Alabama for his traveling museum, the great Natchez historian, geologist and naturalist B.L.C. Wailes found the partial remains of a prehistoric whale, the Basilosaurus, on the banks of the Pearl River, and he reported in an 1854 geological publication that whale vertebrae had been found in abundance in five central Mississippi counties. It wasn’t until 1971, however, that a nearly complete whale skeleton emerged from the Mississippi soil. In June of that year, members of the Mississippi Gem and Mineral Society excavated a Zeuglodon whale from Thompson Creek in Yazoo County, near the Tinsley community, south of Yazoo City. Not surprisingly, this fossil-rich area is also the site of the first oil well in Mississippi in 1939. To be sure, there have been other fossil finds in the area. For example, in 1962, during construction of the Ross Barnett Reservoir dam, a very intact skeleton of a “huge prehistoric monster” was unearthed near Pelahatchie Creek. Although the skull was not recovered, the workers and geologists who examined the vertebra indicated that the rest of the creature was intact. By all accounts, the find was a Basilosaurus. Unfortunately, the skeleton was not preserved, and was reburied in the dam.

The Zeuglodon whale from Yazoo County was recovered, however, and now resides at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. Lovingly known as "Ziggy," he (or she) greets all who visit the museum with a toothy grin. There have since been other whale discoveries, including the remains of a Basilosaurus in Madison County (left), uncovered during a construction project. All these fossil remains ultimately led to the designation by the Mississippi Legislature in 1981 of the prehistoric whale (both the Basilosaurus and Zeuglodon) as the official state fossil. I think Richard Harlan, Sir Richard Owen and certainly Albert Koch would be proud, although Owen would probably never admit it...

(1) Whale:
(2) Harlan:
(3) Owen:
(4) Koch:
(5) Basilsaurus:
(6) Clipping:
(7) Whale discovery:

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