Credit Angela Evanice / VPR
VPR has a great segment on the Vermont whale, and what it’s discovery meant for geology here in the state of Vermont.
My dad is a geologist, and I remember him telling me about the skeleton when I was little, especially as we drove across the flat, western parts of Vermont. He would point out geological features. Later, when I worked in North Hero, I spend hundreds of hours searching the beaches for Trilobites.
In 1849, railroad workers in Charlotte found a skeleton that helped piece together Vermont’s geological history.
The unlikely discovery of what’s come to be known as the Charlotte whale, and the scientific boon it lead to, is chronicled in a new book by Jeff L. Howe called How Do You Get a Whale in Vermont? The Unlikely Story of Vermont’s State Fossil. Howe is the former curator of the Perkins Museum of Geology at the University of Vermont, and he spoke with VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb.
Howe said the bones were found while workers were digging the first railroad across Vermont. Interestingly, they were found the summer after a mammoth fossil was discovered as part of the same dig in Mount Holly. The whale was found in a farmer’s field, about 200 miles and two mountain ranges away from the nearest ocean.
“At first it was a huge bafflement, because the two biggest questions in geology at that time where, one: how old is the earth, and two: how did the earth get to look the way that it does?” Howe explained. “It turned out to be something that was really one of the most important paleontological finds in New England of the 19th century.”
Not long after the discovery, Darwin published his theory of evolution. At the time, there was a lot of discussion about the origins of the world. Lewis Agazzie was the most famous scientist at the time, and he was located in Boston. He’d seen evidence of glacial activity while growing up in the Alps. Agazzie claimed the same thing was going on here in New England.
Listen to the entire interview over on VPR.
Last month, Seven Days also featured an article on the book, How Do You Get a Whale in Vermont? The Unlikely Story of Vermont’s State Fossil:
Thousands of years ago, when the geological features of the Earth were much different than they are now, a small whale expired unceremoniously in the muck at the bottom of a northern sea. It was the kind of unremarkable death that has happened trillions of times in the history of the planet. And yet the very existence of that creature has caused multiple ripples in contemporary Vermont.
Yes, whales — probably quite a lot of them — passed their lives in what was once the Champlain Sea. Roughly 13,000 to 10,000 years ago, the brackish body of water covered parts of present-day Québec, Ontario, New York and Vermont. When the land rose at the end of the last ice age, the waters slowly receded to now-familiar boundaries and left countless creatures to their fossil fates. Many remain buried deep inside the Green Mountains, but in 1849, an unlikely series of events unearthed the remains of that one little whale in Charlotte. With the discovery came a host of historical and scientific questions.
Read the full article, A New Book Explores a Very Old Subject: Vermont’s Whale Fossil on Seven Days.
Buy the book here.