Michigan's Fossil Whales

The discovery of fossil whale bones in Michigan has been a source of some embarrassment for the conventional geologic story of the history of the Great Lakes region, and the notion that the area has remained above sea level for 290 million years since the end of the Pennsylvanian period, as whale fossils are obviously evidence that the land was submerged beneath the sea. 

Photo of fossil sperm whale vertebra The fossil whale discoveries include remains from a finback whale (Balaenoptera), a sperm whale (Physeter), and a right whale (Balaena). 

Geologist Alexander Winchell mentioned the discovery of a fossil caudal vertebra from a large whale in a report of the Geologic Survey of Michigan in 1861. The fossil was from Western Michigan. Unfortunately,  it has been lost. 

In 1930, Michigan geologist Russel C. Hussey reported on several discoveries of whale bones in Michigan, acquired by the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. One lumbar vertebra, shown in the illustration at left, and two ribs of a sperm whale were dug from a swamp, in the northeast corner of Lenawee County. The original photo is by Dorr and Eschman, p. 409. The ruler is six inches long. The presence of sperm whale fossils in Michigan seems especially curious since these whales are normally creatures of the deep ocean, and they rarely venture near the shores. Also, they inhabit warmer tropical waters. 
A large rib, illustrated at right, from either a right (Baleen) or possibly, a bowhead whale, was found at Oscoda, Iosco County, in 1928 during an excavation in the southwest corner of the local schoolhouse. 

A large rib of a finback whale was discovered near Thedford Center northeast of Mt. Morris, Genesee County, during excavation for a cellar on the property of W. Hummell. The rib was standing vertically in  loose sand. 

Hussey speculated that the whales swam up either the St. Lawrence or the Hudson waterways during the ice age, to the ancient Great Lakes, and then entered shallow rivers, where they became stuck. Unable to turn themselves around, they died of starvation. 

There has been speculation that the whale bones were carried to Michigan from elsewhere by Indian tribes of the Hopewell culture. However, this seems unlikely, and there is no evidence of prehistoric people carrying large whale bones from the coasts to the interior. Fossil walrus remains (Odobenus) have also been found, including a portion of a skull, from an ancient elevated beach on Mackinac Island. How or why ancient Indian folk would carry large whale bones far inland to Michigan, and abandon them there in scattered localities, does not seem to have a good explanation. C. R. Harington, of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Ottawa, Canada, argued that not only the Michigan whale fossils, but the walrus fossils, too, were imported by humans! 

There has also been speculation that the sperm and finback whales entered the glacial Great Lakes via the Mississippi River, but this hypothesis requires the whales somehow crossed the state of Michigan via rivers and streams. 

The approximate locations of some of the Michigan whale fossil finds are marked on the map at right.  J. A. Holman wrote: "Many whale bones and teeth continue to turn up in Michigan. Most of these are surface finds that cannot be stratigraphically placed. Sperm whale teeth have been found by people walking Michigan beaches. An especially intriguing find is an undated sperm whale tooth that was found on the bottom of the Pine River near Mesick, where the river was cutting through a deposit of organic material and wood about 40,000 years old!" (Holman, 1995, p. 207). 

Carbon 14 dating of samples taken from the Michigan whale bones by Harington produced enigmatic results; the age reported for the sperm whale was less than 190 years; the results for the finback whale were 790 - 650 years old, and the right whale was dated as being between 810 and 690 years old. (Holman, 1995, p. 207) Perhaps these results reflect some kind of recent contamination. 

The fossil whales and walrus of Michigan and other areas are clearly evidence that the land of the Great Lakes region has emerged from the sea only quite recently. The differential earth movements that formed the crustal depression of the Michigan Basin and raised the Canadian Shield probably generated the rapid currents of displaced flood waters that caused the excavation of the basins of the Great Lakes, and the exhumation of the Shield. Sediment eroded from these areas may have been redeposited far to the south, some of it, perhaps, in the continental shelves. 


  • Dorr, J. A. Jr. and D. F. Eschman (1979) Geology of Michigan. Ann Arbor, U. of Michigan Press 476 pp. (See p. 409)
  • Harington, C. R. (1988) Marine Mammals of the Champlain Sea, and the problem of whales in Michigan. In: Gadd, N.R. (ed.), The Late Quaternary Development of the Champlain Sea Basin. Geological Association of Canada, Special Paper 35, p. 225-240.
  • Holman, J. A. (1995) Ancient Life of the Great Lakes Basin. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 287 pp. (See p. 205) 
  • Holman, J. A. (1975) Michigan's Fossil Vertebrates. East Lansing: Michigan State University Museum.
  • Hussey, R. C. (1930) Items: Science (New Series), v 72 p. xiv, November 7, 1930. 
  • Winchell, A. (1861) First biennial report of the state geologist: Geological Survey of Michigan, p. 133. 

See Also:

Giant Current Ripples in Ontario's Bruce Peninsula
The Great Lakes and the Flood
Directional Erosion Evidence in Lake Huron
Mystery of Pothole Origins 
Drumlins and subglacial meltwater floods 
Drumlins and Diluvial Currents 
Problems in the Glacial Theory 

Related Sites

Charlotte, The Vermont Whale 
Champlain Sea fossils 

Copyright © 1997 by Douglas E. Cox 
The Creation Concept | Controversy About the Glacial Theory