BASILOSAURUS CETOIDES (OWEN)
No Alabama fossil has so held the attention of the public as the zeuglodon, Basilosaurus cetoides. The first report of Basilosaurus was by Richard Harlan in 1832, who studied 28 vertebrae from Louisiana; he thought he was describing the backbone of a large reptile. Further discoveries showed that the animal was a very large and elongated mammal with fins and yoke-shaped molars. More complete remains subsequently came to light in the Jackson Group of southwest Alabama, where nearly complete skeletons were exposed in fields, and paleontologists converged on Alabama.
One of them was Albert Koch, who was something of a promoter. He came to Alabama in 1845 to find rare fossils and was appalled to hear that a New York paleontologist would be arriving shortly to collect zeuglodon bones. Koch rushed to the sites and secured the bones, but the cargo was shipwrecked on the Florida Keys. To his surprise, the salvagers held paleontology in high esteem and sent the fossils on to New York without charge. They promptly went on display, and this is where Koch erred badly.
To appreciate what followed, you must understand that scientists of the 1840s were fascinated by mariners' reports of sea serpents. In 1817, for instance, eleven eyewitnesses swore affidavits that they had encountered a sea serpent off New England over a period of several days, in an atmosphere reminiscent of modern UFO sightings. When the very large bones of a peculiarly elongated whale turned up in upper Eocene strata, the public was enthralled: fossil sea serpents! Koch had collected articulated skeletons from Alabama fields and should have known better than to string them together for public display. His sea serpent was 114 feet long and mounted in an impressively sinuous form. As the real Basilosaurus reached 70 feet in length and is quite elongate, Koch was not far off, but his reputation suffered when other anatomists denounced the reconstruction.
The reality was splendid enough. The Jackson Group continues to yield fine specimens of Basilosaurus cetoides, and they are now protected by law from indiscriminate collection. Mounted skeletons are currently exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution), the University of Southern Mississippi (Hattiesburg), and The Alabama Museum of Natural History on the Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa; the Mississippi Office of Geology (Jackson) displays a skull. In 1984, by Act No. 84-66, the Alabama Legislature proclaimed Basilosaurus cetoides as the State Fossil.
Artist's conception of B. cetoides swimming in the Eocene sea. Painting courtesy of Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, neg. # CK26T.
Eocene paleogeography of the eastern Gulf of Mexico showing the inferred extent of the sea. Painting by Mary Boettger, reprinted courtesy of Alabama Heritage Magazine.