A whale

After an examination of illustrations appearing in French zoologist George Cuvier's 1825 classic text on fossil bones, Thompson determined the bones bore a strong resemblance to Delphinus leucas, the extant white whale. Thompson later proposed a provisional name: Delphinus vermontanus, until the exact relationship could be determined. The name Beluga vermontana also appears in 19th century literature.

A rapidly declining population of Beluga whales still inhabit the Gulf of the St. Lawrence River in eastern Quebec. It is likely this population is the remnant of a more extensive population that once inhabited the Champlain Sea.

Because whale skeletons are highly variable - even within the same species, and because it isn't known for certain whether 11,000 years is sufficient time to provide the genetic isolation needed to produce a new species - it is not possible to determine whether the species of the Charlotte whale is extinct or still living. At the present time, it has been placed within the same genus and species as the modern Beluga whale.

In 1993, nearly 125 years after the discovery of the Charlotte whale, the Vermont State Legislature paid homage to the specimen by designating Delphinapterus leucas the official state fossil, with the passage of Act No. 66.

The original Charlotte fossil whale skeleton is still on display, at the University of Vermont's Perkins Geology Museum. For museum hours of operation, call 656-8694.

Sources and permissions: Envirolink's UVM "Charlotte, the Whale: an Electronic Museum" website (produced by Jeff Howe and Wesley Alan Wright), Carl Zimmer's book "Evolution: the Triumph of an Idea", and "Office of the Secretary of State, Vermont Legislative Directory and State Manual, Biennial Session, 1993-94". Images courtesy UVM and Skulls Unlimited.

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