This weeks bad cast doesn’t really look like a fossil, yet it may be from a creature you might recognise.
I nearly took the photo this way by mistake;
Even worse, I almost took the photo this way;
Shocking. Not the shape of the fossil (which is a little), but the quality. How can this be sold as a cast of a ‘real’ fossil? It has. Frustratingly it was 108 years ago, so the dealers cannot be challenged by trading standards. There is no time travelling ombudsman. (Now there’s a cool job.)
This is actually a cast of a fossil tooth! The tooth does exist somewhere, but you wouldn’t be surprised to know that there is no information with this specimen about the original fossil. That would be giving us too much!
The label names the tooth as belonging to Zeuglodon cetoides. This extinct beast is actually one you may recognise; Basilosaurus cetoides. It’s an amazing creature, with an interesting history.
In the earl-1800s, huge fossil bones had been discovered in the sediment of the American South. Huge, and fairly common, these had been used as furniture! A couple of bones were sent to the American Philosophical Society for identification. (The American Philosophical Society was set up in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram and early members included three presidents of the United States of America).
The anatomist who looked at the bones (mainly the bones from the spine; the vertebra), Richard Harlan, compared them to the (then) recently discovered dinosaur bones of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon. Harlan thought they looked very similar, but bigger. So he named the creature ‘Basilosaurus‘ meaning ‘king lizard’.
Was this another type of giant extinct lizard? Another new dinosaur discovered? Nope.
Harlan visited England and took some of his newly described Basilosaurus specimens with him to show to the great Richard Owen. (Richard Owen was an incredible British comparative anatomist who was able to identify an extinct animal by one bone. He was brilliant, but he was also very arrogant, egotistical and deceitful.) Owen looked at the fossils and there were traits that looked like a mammal, and lots of similarities to whales. He renamed the giant ‘Zeuglodon‘ and the American anatomist agreed.
However, there are rules when we name animals and plants (and bacteria). Them rules are there for a reason. The rules of taxonomy are there to make sure that an organism doesn’t have five different scientific names. It also gives priority to the first name given. So in the case of this big whale, it was scientifically described as Basilosaurus before it was called Zeuglodon, so Basilosaurus takes precedent.
This tooth belonged to this whale that lived during the Eocene (around 40 million years ago). About as long as 4 double decker buses, it was a heft animal! As you can’t really see, the teeth were quite chunky and pointy; the shape, and that one fossil had a stomach full of fish indicate that they fed on fish in the oceans. Closely related to modern whales, the Basilosaurus were not their ancestors; this group and the group of modern whales shared a common ancestor that lived around 50 million years ago.
Beneath this shockingly bad cast is the tale of an whale that once swam in the oceans millions of years ago. Fossils, and potentially casts of fossils, reveal such awesome clues to forgotten worlds. Many of the bad casts in this series do not give the original fossil any thing to get excited about. This bad cast is no exception.