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When visitors to the National Museum of Natural History walk through the Sant Ocean Hall, high above their heads swims an unusual specimen of a fossil whale named Basilosaurus. In the late nineteenth century, the Smithsonian mounted the first accurate skeleton of this unusual creature, once mistaken for a sea serpent—making this artifact’s history as long as its tail.
Basilosaurus cetoides belonged to an extinct group of whales known as the Archaeoceti that lived 40 to 34 million years ago. It grew 40 to 65 feet in length, and was the largest known animal of its day. In 1834, American comparative anatomist Richard Harlan first described a single backbone (or vertebra) "of enormous dimensions," which had been discovered along with some other fragmentary remains near the Ouachita River, Arkansas. Harlan decided that these fossil remains belonged to a new genus of extinct carnivorous reptile, which he called Basilosaurus, meaning “king lizard.” The species name cetoides was later given by Richard Owen, the famed British comparative anatomist, who first recognized Harlan’s specimen as a whale. Since Harlan’s discovery, numerous skeletal remains of this extinct whale have been found in other Gulf States, like Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi.
Ten years after Harlan’s discovery, Albert C. Koch, an avid fossil collector, showman, and proprietor of the St. Louis Museum, set out for Alabama to find the remains of a “gigantic fossil reptile,” which he intended to mount for display in a traveling exhibit to raise money for his collecting expeditions. Upon “discovering” remains of what had already been described by Harlan as belonging to Basilosaurus, Koch collected numerous fossil bones, including a rare complete skull. He announced that he had discovered a new species of reptile—apparently unaware of Owen’s reclassification—that he named Hydrarchos, or “Water King.” In 1845, Koch exhibited the “great sea serpent” at the Apollo Saloon, on Broadway in New York City, for an entry fee of 25 cents. Leading the public to believe that the bones were from an individual skeleton, he claimed that it measured 114 feet long and weighed 7500 pounds. Despite skepticism from the scientific community, Koch’s monster toured throughout Europe.
Nearly 50 years passed before a scientifically accurate skeleton of Basilosaurus could be collected and mounted. In 1894 George Brown Goode, Curator of the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum, dispatched Assistant Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology, Charles Schuchert, to Clarke County, Alabama—where remains were so abundant that farmers were using bone fragments in their stone walls—to find and collect fossilized remains of the Basilosaurus. Goode hoped to mount a scientific exhibit of the animal. Schuchert had difficulty finding a complete specimen, especially a skull, but eventually collected a series of specimens from which a near complete skeleton was created.
The Smithsonian’s fossil whale skeleton was the first accurately assembled Basilosaurus ever mounted. From the material that Schuchert collected, the skull of one and the pelvis and vertebrae of a second animal were selected to form a composite skeleton of Basilosaurus, which was then cast in plaster of Paris. The mounted plaster cast was first displayed at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895. When it returned to the U.S. National Museum, then housed in the Arts and Industries Building, it was suspended from the ceiling over the natural history exhibits. The original fossil bones were displayed underneath the mounted skeleton in several cases.
In 1912, prior to its installation in the Hall of Extinct Monsters in the new National Museum building, today the National Museum of Natural History, the original composite skeleton was mounted with the addition of tail bones from a third specimen. Where the skeleton had only fragments or missing bones, preparators used plaster casts. In 1989, Basilosaurus was moved to the Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit.
Recently, before suspending the Basilosaurus skeleton from the ceiling in the new Sant Ocean Hall, Smithsonian paleontologists added a cast of the hind limbs from a fourth animal. Interestingly, the original hind limb of this Basilosaurus is a holotype—the original specimen used to describe and name a new species—for the fossil bird Alabamornis gigantea. Often the fossil remains of several animals are found at any given dig site, and scientists thought that the bones of this fossil bird had mingled with the bones of the Basilosaurus. However, it has since been determined that the hind limb actually did belong to a Basilosaurus. The hind limb provides a clue to the evolutionary past of Basilosaurus.
Today the Smithsonian’s Basilosaurus is the only real mounted specimen on display in the world.
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