Alabama’s Fossil Emblem: A 35M-Year-Old Giant Whale Tale

alabama s fossil emblem a 35m year old giant whale tale.jpg Science

In the heartland of Alabama, beyond the familiar state symbols of the Yellowhammer bird and the Longleaf pine tree, lies a less-known emblem of the state’s prehistoric past. This emblem is none other than the Basilosaurus Cetoides, a giant whale species that roamed the oceans some 35 million years ago, an era when the world’s geography and climate were drastically different, and when creatures like alligators and palm trees could survive in the Arctic Circle. Officially designated as the state’s fossil in 1984, the Basilosaurus holds a unique place in Alabama’s history, and it is illegal to remove its fossils from the state without express permission from the Governor.

The Basilosaurus, whose Latin name translates to "king lizard," was first discovered in Louisiana in 1832, but it was in Alabama that it truly made its mark, living in the shallow sea that once covered the southern part of the state. Despite its reptilian name, this creature was no lizard. Upon examination by the esteemed paleontologist Richard Owen in 1839, it was determined to be a mammal based on the structure of its teeth. This ancient whale, which is believed to have fed primarily on sharks and fish, was a formidable presence in the sea, reaching lengths of 50-60 feet, a bit longer than a modern sperm whale. Today, the Basilosaurus serves as a fascinating link to Alabama’s deep ancient history, a story told through its fossil remains.

Alabama and Its Ancient Whale: The State’s Unusual Fossil

State symbols are a unique way to represent the history and diversity of each U.S. state, and Alabama is no exception. Most Alabamians are familiar with the state bird, the Yellowhammer, or the state tree, the Longleaf Pine. However, a lesser-known symbol that may surprise many is the state’s official fossil, an ancient giant whale.

The Basilosaurus Cetoides: A Glimpse into the Past

In 1984, the Alabama Legislature designated the Basilosaurus Cetoides, a whale species that lived approximately 35 million years ago, as the state’s fossil. The Legislature also took steps to protect these ancient relics, making 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, a time when animals started to resemble their modern counterparts. This period in history marked the emergence of the first whales, bats, hoofed animals, and even primitive elephants. It was also a time of significant geographical and climatic changes, so much so that alligators and palm trees were found in the Arctic Circle.

The King Lizard That Wasn’t

First discovered in Louisiana in 1832, the Basilosaurus was initially believed to be a reptile. Natural Historian Richard Harlan described the found vertebrae in a report in 1834, giving it the name Basilosaurus, which translates to “king lizard”. However, further examination by renowned paleontologist Richard Owen in 1839, based on the structure of its teeth, revealed that the Basilosaurus was in fact a mammal. Although Owen suggested a new name, Zeuglodon cetoides, the original name, Basilosaurus, was retained.

Preserving Alabama’s Prehistoric Heritage

In the 1890s, The Smithsonian institute sent professional collector Charles Schuchert to Choctaw County to gather Basilosaurus specimens for the U.S. National Museum of Natural History. The collected pieces were combined into an almost complete composite that has been on display at the Smithsonian since the early 1900s. Another specimen is showcased at the Alabama Museum of Natural History at the University of Alabama (UA).

According to UA, the ancient whale, measuring a staggering 50-60 feet long, fed mostly on sharks and fish. Interestingly, despite its size and resemblance, the Basilosaurus is a primitive whale that isn’t related to any modern whales we see today.


The Basilosaurus Cetoides serves as a fascinating symbol of Alabama’s rich prehistoric heritage. It provides a glimpse into an ancient world vastly different from ours and underscores the importance of preserving these relics for future generations. The story of the Basilosaurus also serves as a reminder of the dynamic nature of scientific discovery, where new information can drastically change our understanding of the past.

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