ALABAMA (WHNT) — Every state in the U.S. has its own set of symbols, and Alabama is no different, but some of those symbols may surprise people.
In Alabama, most people are probably familiar with the state bird, the Yellowhammer, or the state tree, the Longleaf pine, but they may be more surprised to learn about the state’s fossil, a giant ancient whale.
In 1984, the Alabama Legislature designated the state’s fossil as Basilosaurus Cetoides, a whale species that lived around 35 million years ago. The Legislature also made it illegal to remove Basilosaurus fossils from the state without permission from Alabama’s Governor.
The Basilosaurus was native to the Eocene epoch of the Cenozoic period. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Cenozoic period is when animals started looking the most like they do today. The Eocene is specifically when the first whales, bats, hoofed animals and even primitive elephants appear in fossil records.
It was also a time when the world’s geography and climate were vastly different than they are now. One glaring example of this difference is that alligators and palm trees were able to live in the Arctic Circle during this time.
According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, during this time, the Basilosaurus lived in a shallow sea that covered southern Alabama, a kind of big brother to the Gulf of Mexico.
While the Basilosaurus is Alabama’s state fossil, it was actually first discovered in Louisiana in 1832. The fossil was a vertebrae that was described in a report by Natural Historian Richard Harlan in 1834. Harlan initially believed the fossil to belong to a reptile and named it Basilosaurus, which is Latin for “king lizard.”
That same year Judge John G. Creagh sent Harlan more Basilosaurus fossils that had been found in Clarke County, Alabama.
Harlan then took some Basilosaurus samples to England in 1839, where they were examined by renowned paleontologist Richard Owen. Owen ultimately concluded that the Basilosaurus was a mammal, not a reptile based on the structure of its teeth. He also suggested a new name for the creature, Zeuglodon cetoides – but the Basilosaurus name was retained.
In the 1890s, The Smithsonian sent professional collector Charles Schuchert to Choctaw County to collect Basilosaurus specimens from the U.S. National Museum of Natural History. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Schuchert found part of a skeleton near Melvin and another part near a community named Fail.
These were combined into an almost complete composite that has been displayed at the Smithsonian since the early 1900s. Another Basilosaurus specimen is displayed in the Alabama Museum of Natural History at the University of Alabama (UA).
According to UA, it is believed that Basilosaurus fed mostly on sharks and fish based on stomach contents. UA says the whale grew to be about 50-60 feet long, a bit longer than a modern sperm whale, and added that the Basilosaurus was a primitive whale that isn’t related to any modern whales you would see alive today.