Who was the first to mount Basilosaurus?


The skull of Koch's "Hydrarchos".

In the summer of 1845 Albert Koch was relieved to receive a collection of Basilosaurus bones he had collected in Alabama. He had shipped the fossils ahead of him to New York, but when he arrived at the city he was told that they ship they were on had wrecked. He feared the worst, but the salvagers had saved the bones and sent them to Koch free of charge. He did not call his reconstruction Basilosaurus or "Zygodon" (as he called it in his journal, a derivation of Zeuglodon, itself synonymous with Basilosaurus), though. The bones were said to represent a gargantuan sea-serpent, Hydrarchos, and it was a public sensation.

Even though Koch's reconstruction was overly imaginative it has often been inferred to be the earliest known mount of Basilosaurus bones. Other reconstructions soon followed. Koch made another, more accurate skeleton in 1853, and the reconstruction of Basilosaurus at the Smithsonian featured during the early 20th century has been cited as the first "true" mount of this ancient whale. Yet there was another Basilosaurus reconstruction that preceded even Koch's mythically-proportioned monster.

Four years before Koch even began his excavations the geologist S.B. Buckley exhumed a nearly complete Basilosaurus skeleton from the Alabama plantation of Judge Creagh in January and February of 1841. (Creagh was well-known for his willingness to help scientists interested in fossils on his land. Koch, too, wanted to examine Creagh's fossils, but by the time he arrived in Alabama Creagh had died. He instead bribed the temporary land-holder with a few gifts and was able to find a skeleton Buckley had previously uncovered but left behind.) Buckley is said to have restored the skeleton on the spot, although it was later sold to E. Emmons for $200, who turned a tidy profit by selling it to a Dr. Warren of Boston for $900. As of 1876 it was still held in the private Warren Museum. (The Warren Anatomical Museum still operates, although I do not as yet know whether they still have Buckley's Basilosaurus).

During the time that the fossil was with Emmons in New York, though, Buckley wrote a letter to the American Journal of Science and Arts about the bones he excavated from Creagh's land. (He had previously announced the find in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal.) His aim was to defend his reconstruction. It had been pointed out by Jeffires Wyman that Koch's Hydrarchos was made of bones from than one individual. Could Buckley's creature be an unnatural amalgamation, too? No, and to prove it Buckley recounted his discovery of the skeleton in detail to remove any doubt about its authenticity. He had been excavating fossils on Creagh's property when he received the following letter from one of Creagh's slaves;

Dear Sir--Most fortunately and apropos, this morning a negro fellow discovered twenty-five feet of a Basilosaurus, with the head, &c., in a line exposed upon the surface of the earth. From appearances, the balance can easily be obtained. I send a boy with a horse for you, supposing it best for you to return to the bones and commence operations here. The place is about half a mile from the house.

Yours respectfully, J. G. Creagh.

Buckley wasted no time in checking it out;

On the receipt of this I repaired to the spot, where I saw for the first time parts of a head and teeth of the Zeuglodon. The Judge had not suffered any of the vertebrae to be disturbed, merely having caused a thin layer of earth to be removed, so as to expose twenty five feet of the animal. A negro that morning had discovered them with his plough, while ploughing, lying in a gentle slope of land, whose surface had been much carried away by the late rains. The field had been in cultivation during many years. Here we obtained the skeleton, which is now at Albany, of which I gave a short account in this Journal in the spring of 1843, and I now repeat what I then published, that it evidently and undoubtedly belonged to one individual animal; excepting the vertebrae of the neck, which were partly displaced, (but lay on a surface less than a rod square, and those that were displaced lay near the head or rather its fragments,) the vertebras were in an almost unbroken series to the extreme tail--most of them were connected and sometimes two or three would stick together when pryed out of their bed, their ends generally joined ; nor do I think there was more than once a vacancy of six inches.

Buckley was not the showman that Koch was, though. Buckley's skeleton was quietly on display in Albany while Koch took his "real" sea monster on tour through major cities of the northeast. Recent sea-serpent sightings in New England added to the fervor, which frustrated Charles Lyell when he came to lecture on more serious subjects in Boston. Indeed, even though Buckley knew that his fossils were what Harlan had called Basilosaurus (later renamed Zeuglodon by Owen before being switched back again) Koch's skeleton caused confusion among the public and scientists. It would not be until later, when a German anatomist accidentally shattered the temporal bone of Koch's specimen, that its identity as a whale would be undoubtedly confirmed.

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What amazes me is how they could mistake a mammal skeleton with a reptile. Is it because of Basilosaurus having a slightly different structure than other whales? I don't know much about the evolution of whales, but I DO know that they evolved from four-legged, land-dwelling, horse-related mammals sometime in the Cenozoic era. I'm not sure if it lived in the Tertiary or not.

Who was the first to mount Basilosaurus?

Um, a male Basilosaurus?

[reads article]

Oh, different kind of mount. Never mind. Carry on.

Basilosaurus is striking to me because it's one of a number of extinct animals that because of mistaken identity or other reasons, was given an "inappropriate" name, which had to be retained because of the rule that the first name bestowed retains priority. Also, it's serpentine build made for an excellent "sea serpent", even if a few bones had to be added!

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 15 Jan 2009 #permalink

Quick glance at the Warren Museum website you link to sugests it is largely a history-of-medicine collection. Perhaps fossils were transferred to aome other museum? (My temptation, were I to try to follow it up, would be to start by seeing if the Museum of Comparative Zoology -- same town, some sort of affiliation to same well-known university -- has a Basilosaurus...)

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 15 Jan 2009 #permalink