THE WHALES OF YAZZOO COUNTY

Zygorhiza kochii skeleton
Zygorhiza kochii skeleton, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
photo courtesy of Claire H. from New York City, USA
Yazoo County, in the steamy Delta Region of west-central Mississippi, is by no means the kind of place that automatically brings to mind the mental image of whales slicing through warm, turquoise-colored waters in a tropical sea. To the west of the loess-capped bluff bisecting the county the landscape consists of swampy forests, fields of cotton and soybean, and occasional catfish ponds. East of the bluff there are low, wooded hills. Among the hills nearest the bluff, valleys are often deep and steep-walled.

Eight miles south of Yazoo City the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad takes advantage of a gap in the loess-capped bluff and plunges through it, on its way to higher ground at Jackson. The particular valley whose mouth forms this gap owes its presence to a stream called Thompson Creek, which runs by the hamlet of Tinsley. It's a fine little creek, the kind with sand and gravel in its bed, and in the gravel semiprecious stones can be found. Thus, on a certain day in 1971, members of the Mississippi Gem and Mineral Society were scanning Thompson Creek's gravel deposits when they discovered a whale.

This particular whale had been dead for around 38 million years -- since the late Eocene Epoch. In 1971 its skeletal remains lay snugly embedded in sands that 38 million years earlier had formed the floor of a shallow tropical sea occupying the site of the future Yazoo County.

The whale in question is now known by the scientific name Zygorhiza kochi, and it is extinct. That's a skeleton of one at the top of this page. Though this species of whale was a small one, growing to only about sixteen feet, finding its wonderfully preserved fossil caused quiet a stir. On March 12, 1981, the Mississippi State Legislature passed Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 557 designating the prehistoric whale as the official fossil of the State of Mississippi. Eventually this whale's fossilized bone would find a home hanging from the ceiling of the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.

Other partial skeletons of Zygorhiza kochi have been found in the same formation of sand, the Moodys Branch Formation, at Jackson.

There is more to be found in this area than old whales, too. Where the Moodys Branch Formation outcrops as Techeva Creek and the creek cuts through our bluff ten miles northeast of Yazoo City, paleontologist Sylvester Q. Breard, Jr. has discovered fossils of some twenty species of vertebrates, or animals with backbones. He's found sharks, fish, and more remains of our whale, Zygorhiza kochi, as well as eagle rays, Myliobatis. Among his most interesting finds have been a scapula and two teeth of another whale, this one the slinky Basilosaurus cetoides. Basilosaurus cetoides was truly a "sea serpent" of its time, with a four-foot head, a ten-foot body, and a forty-foot tail. You can get an idea of its size below:

Basilosaurus cetoides diagram showing relative size
Basilosaurus size compared to human, illustration courtesy of Conty

Other paleontologists exploring Upper Eocene sediments along our loess-capped bluff at Yazoo City in Yazoo County, and near Redwood about eleven miles northeast of Vicksburg, have found teeth of the giant shark Carcharodon  auriculatus, capable of growing thirty feet or more.

The sea these marine animals lived in was eventually filled in, and the land was uplifted, enabling the remains of whales and sharks to be found where they are today.