In August 1849, a work-crew digging a railroad bed in Charlotte, Vermont unearthed a skull and a batch of bones that were first thought to be the remains of an ox or horse, or some other large familiar creature. Indeed it was a large creature… a whale – discovered in 8 feet of clay a mile from the shore of freshwater Lake Champlain.
The bones were turned over to a Vermont natural scientist named Zadock Thompson, who with help from Harvard University, identified the skeleton as a 14-foot, 11,000-year-old beluga whale, an important discovery that confirmed evidence that ocean waters had once covered the area.
The whale skeleton, later reconstructed with wires by Thompson, is now housed in a glass display case for all to see at the UVM Perkins Geology Museum. The whale and a helpful inscription tell about continental glaciers, changing climates, and evolving sea and land formations. A visitor can’t help but imagine the puzzlement of the laborers when they uncovered the whale, the excitement of Thompson as he pieced together the skeletal puzzle, and more to the point: how dramatically the landscape and flora and fauna of the region have changed over 11,000 years.
What can we learn from the Charlotte whale? That some 24,000 years ago a continental glacier covered the area with ice a mile deep. As the earth’s climate warmed, the glacier receded north, and that roughly 13,000 years ago the ice had disappeared enough to allow ocean water to flow into the region. That sometime during that period the whale died and ocean waters began receding, eventually disappearing, as the once glacier-depressed land mass rose.
Modern day whales in Vermont are limited to the Charlotte whale’s skeleton and the Whale Tails sculpture alongside the northbound lanes of Interstate 89 in South Burlington. Click here to learn about the Whale Tails sculpture.
The Charlotte Whale can be seen at:
Perkins Geology Museum, Delehanty Hall, University of Vermont, 180 Colchester Ave., Burlington, VT 05401, 802-656-8694 www.uvm.edu/perkins/ Mon-Fri 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Admission free.
Rock, minerals, fossils, dinosaur bones and an 11,000-year-old whale skeleton!
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