at sea. (Copyright Lee
It looked like a sea serpent. It swam like a sea
serpent. Its original name, Basilosaurus, even meant
King of Reptiles. But was the Zeuglodon, an aquatic animal
that apparently lived from 37 to 53 million years ago, a sea
In 1845 Albert Koch, owner of a small museum in
St. Louis, set out to visit Alabama. He heard rumors that people
were finding the bones of sea serpents in the ground.
Koch was no stranger to paleontology. He had already
dug up the bones of a giant mastodon
and took it on a tour of America. Koch, more a huckster than
a serious scientist, had added an extra ten vertebrae from another
skeleton and wooden blocks to make the creature look even more
gigantic than it really was. In 1842 he sold it to The British
Museum, who shrunk the creature back to normal size before putting
it on display.
Arriving in Alabama, Koch found these "sea serpent"
vertebrae so common that people were using them for furniture.
Finding a full skeleton was more difficult, and it took him
months to discover a nearly complete set of bones near the Sintabogure
River. It took three more months of hard work to excavate the
bones and pack them into five wagonloads. These Koch, using
his old tricks, assembled into a skeleton 114 feet long using
the vertebrae of five different animals.
Koch took his creation on tour. In New York the
newspaper The New York Disector reviewed the exhibit:
"The serpent of the Deucalion deluge, slain by Apollo Pythius,
is beheld with scarcely the aid of the dullest fancy."
The creature was christened Hydroargos sillimani
by Koch, which meant "Silliman's Master-of-the-Seas."
Benjamin Silliman, a professor at Yale University, had been
open to the possibility that sea serpents might exist after
some sightings in New England in 1827. Silliman, not wishing
to be associated with Koch's creation, however, demanded the
name be changed and Koch complied.
Koch would eventually take his monster to Europe,
sell it, return to Alabama, excavate another and take it on
tour also. But was what he was showing really an exaggerated
Koch serpent on tour.
A few years before in 1832, a box arrived at the
American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. In it was a
lump of rock and a letter from one Judge Bry of Louisiana. The
lump was the fossil of what Bry believed might be a sea monster.
The fossil was given to Dr. Richard Harlan, a surgeon
and paleontologist, to examine. He thought it might have come
from a sea going-lizard. More bones from the same type of creature
arrived from Alabama including a jaw. The jaw was hollow which
seemed to support Harlan's reptile theory, so the creature was
christened the Basilosaurus which meant King of Reptiles
making it a true "sea serpent." Harlan did this even though
the creature had teeth that were narrow toward the front of
the jaw, but larger toward the back, normally characteristic
of a mammal.
In 1839 Harlan traveled to London to address a
meeting of the Geographic Society. When he arrived he was plunged
into a controversy between scientists who believed that mammals
lived during the Mesozoic Period and those that didn't. Even
though the Basilosaurus was from the following period, the Eocene,
it might prove that some non-identical teeth, found in Mesozoic
jaws, could belong to a form of reptile, instead of mammals.
In London the great English anatomist, Richard
Owen (who coined the term dinosaur
a few years later), got a hold of Harlan's fossils and began
a close examination. He noted that the hollow jaw was not just
characteristic of reptiles, but was found on the sperm
whale, too. He also discovered that the shape of the spinal
cord channel in the vertebrae was like that of a whale's, not
a reptile. Finally by splitting open some of the teeth, Owen
showed that they were more like a marine mammal than that of
a marine lizard. Harlan had to agree and the Basilosaurus
ceased to be a sea serpent, but was instead reclassified as
a primitive form of whale.
Skeletons of the Zeuglodon have been found across
North America and in parts of Africa. In life the creatures
ranged from fifty-five to seventy-five feet long and sometimes
had skull a five feet in length. It has the remains of hind
leg bones suggesting that the animal's ancestors once lived
on the land (Scientists believe that all whales came from a
four footed hyena-like creature known as a Mesonychid).
There has been speculation that the Zeuglodon
is not dead, but inhabiting cold water lakes like Loch
Ness and Lake Champlain as their
famous monsters. While this seems unlikely, it is not at all
impossible, since the Coelacanth,
a primitive fish thought to be extinct for 65 million years,
showed up off the coast of South Africa in 1938.
The Zeuglodon is the official state fossil of
Alabama and is protected by law. So if you find one on your
next visit to that southern state, make sure you call the governor
and ask permission before you take him home with you.
Krystek,1996, 1998. All Rights Reserved