I have been reading with interest about the restructuring of the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge, under way this year, in particular this account by Matt Lowe of the moving of the Finback Whale skeleton, which had hung in the museum since just after it washed ashore in Dorset in 1865. The Finback is the second largest species of whale after the Blue, and the Cambridge specimen is one of the largest ever recorded.
Most reasonably large cities probably have a whale skeleton or two lying around somewhere. They are one of the nineteenth-century emblems of research in the life sciences. In Moby Dick, the greatest novel in the English Language and a compendium of erroneous whale-facts into the bargain, Herman Melville (1819-1891) notes some ‘fossiliferous’ anecdotes concerning whales, as follows:
“Detached broken fossils of pre-adamite whales, fragments of their bones and skeletons, have within thirty years past, at various intervals, been found at the base of the Alps, in Lombardy, in France, in England, in Scotland, and in the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Among the more curious of such remains is part of a skull, which in the year 1779 was disinterred in the Rue Dauphine in Paris, a short street opening almost directly upon the palace of the Tuileries; and bones disinterred in excavating the great docks of Antwerp, in Napoleon’s time. Cuvier pronounced these fragments to have belonged to some utterly unknown Leviathanic species.
“But by far the most wonderful of all Cetacean relics was the almost complete vast skeleton of an extinct monster, found in the year 1842, on the plantation of Judge Creagh, in Alabama. The awe-stricken credulous slaves in the vicinity took it for the bones of one of the fallen angels. The Alabama doctors declared it a huge reptile, and bestowed upon it the name of Basilosaurus. But some specimen bones of it being taken across the sea to Owen, the English Anatomist, it turned out that this alleged reptile was a whale, though of a departed species. A significant illustration of the fact, again and again repeated in this book, that the skeleton of the whale furnishes but little clue to the shape of his fully invested body. So Owen rechristened the monster Zeuglodon; and in his paper read before the London Geological Society, pronounced it, in substance, one of the most extraordinary creatures which the mutations of the globe have blotted out of existence.”
As a footnote, Richard Owen (1804-1892) also noted from an examination of its teeth that the creature was a mammal (a fact disputed elsewhere by Melville, who remains adamant that the whale is a fish), and while the name Zeuglodon (meaning “yoked tooth”) was generally approved, the rules of nomenclature hold that the first given name should remain, and the whale, the largest creature of the Eocene, is still known as Basilosaurus.