Basilosaurus, Greek for “king lizard,” names a type of prehistoric whale initially mistaken for a large reptile when its fossil remains were discovered in the 1830s. It was Richard Harlan who first publicized his discovery of a single vertebra (“of enormous dimensions,” according to his report) and other skeletal fragments near the Ouachita River in Arkansas. Initially he was sent samples of these fossils from the Alabama plantation owners on whose land they were found, where fossils of this kind were so common that they were being used as building materials for walls and furniture. Harlan named the creature Basilosaurus, a name that implies his initial mistake in classification, perpetuated even today as it is the moniker most commonly used. Richard Owen, a renowned British naturalist and anatomist, was the first to recognize that the species Harlan discovered was a prehistoric whale. His proposed name for the creature was Zeuglodon (meaning “yoke (i.e., rooted) tooth”), but owing to the taxonomic convention of the first-published name having precedence, Basilosaurus stuck; Owen did append the designation cetoids (root: cetus) to the name to clarify the classification.*
Ten years after Harlan’s discovery in Arkansas, Albert C. Koch, proprietor of the St. Louis Museum and an avid fossil collector and showman, set out to collect a more complete fossil record of the Basilosaurus. Although Koch gathered many new fossils on his expedition—most notable among them a very rare complete skull—not all of his findings are believed to have belonged to the same species.
The fact did not prevent the giant skeletal “sea serpent” dubbed Hydrarchos from making an impressive tour through the United States and Europe. A legitimate fossil record of Basilosaurus was not completed until the 1890s, thanks to the labors of Charles Schuchert of the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum, who made repeated visits to the “Zeuglodon bed” in Arkansas to excavate the fossilized remains of several Basilosauri, which were later assembled by James W. Gidey to comprise what is still the most accurate Basilosaurus specimen on display today.
There are characteristics that can be surmised about this ancient leviathan from its fossilized skeletal remains and others that will remain forever beyond the reach of human imagining. Weighing between 50-75 tons, the Basilosaurus lived in the Eocene era between 40 and 34 million years ago. Because of its small fins, it is thought to have swum by undulating its body like an eel or snake. The Basilosaurus skeleton also shows evidence, however, that this ancient leviathan had a fluked tail**, which, Ishmael would have noted, would have contributed significantly to its ability to propel and to steer itself through the water. With great, peg-like teeth at the front of the jaws for seizing prey and even larger teeth in the back to slice and chew flesh once it was in the mouth, this monster was deadly. A top predator, Basilosaurus rivaled Megalodon; had they not lived about 10 million years apart, we would know which of these great beasts was the deadliest of underwater predators. The Basilosaurus is thought to have become extinct owing to the shortage of prey after the start of the Ice Age.
We’ll forgive Ishmael if he misrepresents slightly the historical record of the discovery of the Basilosaurus in the presentation of it in Chapter 104 of Moby-Dick, “The Fossil Whale.” Most notably, he dates Harlan’s initial findings from 1842, already several years after Owen’s reclassification of the species, which Ishmael remarks upon at some length. (There appears to be no explicit mention of Koch and his Hydrarchos in Moby-Dick.***) The time Ishmael is interested in here is deeper, longer than human time, so that to quibble about a mere decade is laughable: his thoughts dwell on whaletime. Consider the story of Jonah: what is from the perspective of the ages of humankind an ancient narrative relic would be a minor encounter in the thick of cetacean history. Ishmael is “horror struck” at the thought of human history in comparison to that of the great whale. Consider how much more immediately recognizable as a whale would have been the leviathan who swallowed Jonah than the Basilosaurus, and good thing for Jonah, too.
* Facts presented in this and the subsequent paragraph were obtained from the website of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, May 2015.
** See Danielle Teboul, “They did it on Porpoise,” Danielle’s PalaeoBlog: Topics of the Ancient World discussed (Dec. 3, 2013).
*** For more on Albert C. Koch see Douglas E. Jones, “Doctor Koch and his ‘Immense Antediluvian Monsters,’” Alabama Heritage, 12 (Spring 1989), pp. 2-19.