10 Facts About Basilosaurus, the King Lizard Whale

01
of 11

Meet Basilosaurus, the So-Called King Lizard

basilosaurus
Wikimedia Commons

One of the first identified prehistoric whales, Basilosaurus, the "king lizard," has been a part of American culture for literally hundreds of years, especially in the southeastern U.S. On the following slides, you'll discover 10 fascinating Basilosaurus facts.

 

02
of 11

Basilosaurus Was Once Mistaken for a Prehistoric Reptile

basilosaurus
Wikimedia Commons

In the early 19th century, when the fossil remains of Basilosaurus were being studied by American paleontologists, the air was thick with talk of giant marine reptiles like Mosasaurus and Pliosaurus (which had recently been discovered in Europe). Because its long, narrow skull so closely resembled that of Mosasaurus, Basilosaurus was initially and incorrectly "diagnosed" as a marine reptile of the Mesozoic Era, and given its deceptive name (Greek for "king lizard") by the naturalist Richard Harlan.

03
of 11

Basilosaurus Had a Long, Eel-Like Body

basilosaurus
Wikimedia Commons

Unusually for a prehistoric whale, Basilosaurus was sleek and eel-like, measuring up to 65 feet long from the tip of its head to the end of its tail fin but only weighing in the neighborhood of five to 10 tons. Some paleontologists speculate that Basilosaurus not only looked, but swam, like a giant eel, undulating its long, narrow, muscular body close to the water's surface; however, this would place it so far outside the mainstream of cetacean evolution that other experts remain skeptical.

04
of 11

The Brain of Basilosaurus Was Comparatively Small

basilosaurus
Wikimedia Commons

Basilosaurus plied the world's seas during the late Eocene epoch, about 40 to 34 million years ago, at a time when many megafauna mammals (like the terrestrial predator Andrewsarchus) were endowed with giant sizes and comparatively small brains. Given its enormous bulk, Basilosaurus possessed a smaller-than-usual brain, a hint that it was incapable of the social, pod-swimming behavior characteristic of modern whales (and perhaps also incapable of echolocation and the generation of high-frequency whale calls).

05
of 11

Basilosaurus Bones Were Once Used as Furniture

basilosaurus
Wikimedia Commons

Although Basilosaurus was only officially named in the early 18th century, its fossils had been extant for decades--and were used by residents of the southeastern U.S. as andirons for fireplaces or foundation posts for houses. At the time, of course, no one knew that these petrified artifacts were actually the bones of a long-extinct prehistoric whale--and one imagines that the resale price of Basilosaurus furniture shot through the roof after this beast was finally identified!

06
of 11

Basilosaurus Was Once Known as Zeuglodon

zeuglodon

Although Richard Harlan came up with the name Basilosaurus (see slide #2), it was the famous English naturalist Richard Owen who recognized that this prehistoric creature was actually a whale--and suggested the slightly comical name Zeuglodon ("yoke tooth") instead. Over the next few decades, various specimens of Basilosaurus were assigned as species of Zeuglodon, most of which either reverted back to Basilosaurus or received new genus designations (Saghacetus and Dorudon being two notable examples).

07
of 11

Basilosaurus Is the State Fossil of Mississippi and Alabama

basilosaurus
Nobu Tamura

It's unusual for two states to share the same official fossil; it's even rarer for these two states to border each other. Be that as it may, Basilosaurus is the official state fossil of both Mississippi and Alabama (at least Mississippi divides the honor between Basilosaurus and another prehistoric whale, Zygorhiza). You may be tempted to infer from this fact that Basilosaurus was native to North America exclusively, but fossil specimens of this whale have been discovered as far afield as Egypt and Jordan!

08
of 11

Basilosaurus Was the Inspiration for the Hydrarchos Fossil Hoax

hydrarchos
Wikimedia Commons

In 1845, a man named Albert Koch perpetrated one of the most notorious hoaxes in the history of paleontology, reassembling a bunch of Basilosaurus bones into a fraudulent "sea monster" named Hydrarchos ("ruler of the waves"). Koch exhibited the 114-foot long skeleton in a saloon (price of admission: 25 cents), but his scam imploded when naturalists noticed the different ages, and provenances, of Hydrarchos' teeth (specifically, a mixture of reptilian and mammalian teeth, as well as teeth belonging to both juveniles and full-grown adults).

09
of 11

The Front Flippers of Basilosaurus Retained Their Elbow Hinges

basilosaurus
Dmitry Bogdanov

As huge as Basilosaurus was, it still occupied a fairly low branch on the whale evolutionary tree, plying the oceans only 10 million years or so after its earliest ancestors (such as Pakicetus) were still walking on land. This explains the unusual length and flexibility of Basilosaurus' front flippers, which retained their rudimentary elbows. This feature disappeared entirely in later whales, and is today retained only by the distantly related marine mammals known as pinnipeds.

10
of 11

The Vertebrae of Basilosaurus Were Filled with Fluid

basilosaurus
Nobu Tamura

One unusual feature of Basilosaurus is that its vertebrae were not made of solid bone (as is the case with modern whales) but were hollow and filled with fluid. This is a clear indication that this prehistoric whale spent most of its life near the water's surface, since its hollow backbone would have crumpled from the intense water pressure deep beneath the waves. Combined with its eel-like torso (see slide #3), this anatomical quirk tells us a lot about Basilosaurus' preferred hunting style!

11
of 11

Basilosaurus Wasn't the Largest Whale That Ever Lived

leviathan
Leviathan. Sameer Prehistorica

The name "King Lizard" is misleading in not one, but two, ways: not only was Basilosaurus a whale rather than a reptile, but it wasn't even close to being the king of the whales; later cetaceans were much more formidable. A good example is the giant killer whale Leviathan, which lived about 25 million years later (during the Miocene epoch), weighed as much as 50 tons, and made a worthy opponent for the contemporaneous prehistoric shark Megalodon (as you can learn for yourself by reading Megalodon vs. Leviathan - Who Wins?)

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Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About Basilosaurus, the King Lizard Whale." ThoughtCo, Jun. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/facts-about-basilosaurus-king-lizard-whale-1093325. Strauss, Bob. (2017, June 21). 10 Facts About Basilosaurus, the King Lizard Whale. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-basilosaurus-king-lizard-whale-1093325 Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About Basilosaurus, the King Lizard Whale." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-basilosaurus-king-lizard-whale-1093325 (accessed November 24, 2017).