Monroe, Louisiana, August, 15, 1832:Nothing like this has ever been seen by man. The bones of a gigantic sea monster that lived millions of years ago and that is nearly 100 feet in length and must have weighed 5 to 10 tons has been found along the Ouachita River on a farm about 50 miles south of here, several hundred miles from any ocean. What is it? How did it get here? And, are there more of them?
Judge Henry Bry, wealthy plantation owner and one of the founders of the Monroe settlement, who moved to the Ouachita River Valley soon after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, rescued these bones from a local farmer, last spring.
This story has been unfolding for more than three years. In 1829, Judge Bry was called to the farm to look at a cliff about 40 feet high, part of which had slid down into the Ouachita River after heavy rains. The remaining part of the cliff left exposed a whole stratum of bones more than 400 feet long and about 35 feet from the top surface. The judge dug out a few bones and told the farmer he would be back to excavate. Unfortunately, it would take three years for the judge to return, and he only did it, this spring, because he heard the farmer was using the bones as andirons in his fireplaces. Judge Bry wanted to know what kind of creature this was. Continued andiron use would tell him nothing. He researched who could provide him answers.
The judge carefully removed many more bones from the cliff, crated them up, and sent them to a surgeon in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, named Dr. Richard Harlan, who is also one of the few paleontologists in the United States. Paleontologists study prehistoric life.
Judge Bry enclosed a letter in the crate telling Dr. Harlan, “A scientific memoir cannot be expected from one (like me) who has now spent 30 years of his existence literally living in the remotest forests of Louisiana, whose life has—during this long period—been entirely devoted to agricultural pursuits.”However, the judge continued in the letter, “If I can presume to express an opinion as to the animal to which these bones belong, I should venture to say that they were part of a sea monster.” But, where is the sea?
After several months of study, Dr. Harlan arrived at the same conclusion. He decided that the vertebrae came from the backbone of a giant extinct marine reptile. Dr. Harlan notified Judge Bry that he had named this remarkable sea monster Basilosaurus (bah-SILL-uh-sawr-us), or King of the Reptiles.
Not getting the full story and only hearing the word “sea monster,” many of our local fishermen along the Ouachita reportedly have been cautious about the big strikes on their lines, here of late. On their hook could be a big ole catfish—or it could be something about a 2000 times bigger!
We now know that what Judge Bry sent to Dr. Harlan nearly two centuries ago were the bones of a ferocious whale—not a reptile—that lived some 45 million years ago. We know it was ferocious because its fossils indicate it ate sharks like guppies. Those bones Dr. Bry removed from that remote cliff in the backwoods of Louisiana were the first ever found—anywhere in the world—of this prehistoric mammal which paleontologists still call a Basilosaurus. Dr. Harlan’s size estimation was close. An actual full-grown Basilosaurus was about 82 feet long and weighed 7 tons. Of course, the largest creature ever known still exists—the Blue Whale, measuring 100 feet long and weighing 200 tons. Its tongue alone weighs more than an elephant. Its heart is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Fortunately, the Blue Whale is not an enemy to man.
Since the 1830’s, we have also learned that for 40 million years an ancient sea once covered what is now Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and parts of Tennessee. The Basilosaurus was common in that relatively shallow sea—about 600 feet deep.
Some zoologists believe either the Basilosaurus or an evolved relative is currently still alive and responsible for all the world’s sea serpent sightings each year, but its actual fossil record appears to have ended 37 million years ago, so there is no hard evidence the Basilosaurus still exists, other than in Southern Memories
Basilosaurus: Smithsonian Institution
Basilosaurus Image Gallery