CHARLOTTE - In 1849, while constructing the first railroad between Rutland and Burlington, workers unearthed the bones of a mysterious animal near Charlotte. Buried nearly 10 feet below the surface in thick blue clay, the bones were unlike those of any animal previously discovered in Vermont.
While walking near the Charlotte construction site - located on Ferry Road near the railroad tracks; a state marker now commemorates the world-famous discovery - local resident John G. Thorp observed the bone fragments in the dirt. Finding the bones to be unusual, Thorp convinced the job overseer to move the work to another segment of the project to allow for study and collection.
Unfortunately, thinking the bones to be those of an old workhorse, the workmen continued to excavate, destroying parts of the skull. But after consulting with experts, Thorp learned the bones were identified as those of a beluga or white whale - a sea mammal that inhabits arctic and subarctic marine waters in the northern hemisphere.
Because Charlotte is far inland (over 150 miles from the Atlantic Ocean), early naturalists were at a loss to explain the bones of a marine whale buried beneath the fields of rural Vermont. Today, the Charlotte whale is an aid in the study of the geology and the natural history of the Champlain Basin.
The fossil whale was preserved in the sediments of the prehistoric Champlain Sea, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that extended deep into the Champlain Valley for 2,500 years following the global melting of glaciers 12,500 years ago.
The Charlotte whale is a beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas), approximately 12 feet in length. Although it is not possible to determine the sex of the specimen, tooth wear and skull sutures indicate it was an adult.
Following the discovery, naturalist Zadock Thompson of the University of Vermont was called in to study the bones. After returning to the site to collect all the bone fragments possible, he declared: "Upon a careful examination of these bones, I ascertained that the greater part of the head, all of the teeth, and several vertebrae, ribs and bones of the limbs, were wanting in order to complete the skeleton."
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.