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Science & NaturePrehistoric Pakenham whale on display in Almonte

Prehistoric Pakenham whale on display in Almonte

by Neil Carleton

About 11,500 years ago, the greater Pakenham area was colder than cold.  It was still frozen solid beneath the 2 km or so of the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered most of Canada.  The tremendous weight of the ice pushed the ground surface down in elevation by several hundred metres.  The vast amount of water that was locked up in the ice lowered the global sea levels as much as 150 m.

The greater Pakenham area (red pointer) was still locked in ice about 11,500 years ago, not far from the receding edge of the Laurentide Ice Sheet.  Modified Geological Survey of Canada image.

When the ice melted, the sea level rose and salt water flooded far up the St. Lawrence River Valley into eastern Ontario.  A portion of the western shoreline of this large ocean embayment, the Champlain Sea, was along the eastern slope of Mt. Pakenham.  Five species of whales, along with seals, walrus, and numerous species of fish are known to have lived in the Champlain Sea.

In 1906 there was a remarkable find near Pakenham on lot 21 of the 11th concession.  When Patrick Cannon was digging a well on his farm, he unearthed some skeletal remains at a depth of 14 feet.

Location of the 1906 Cannon farm northwest of Pakenham.
Pakenham whale bones – National Museum photo.

The skull and other bones were identified as the skeletal remains of a white whale, a beluga, by J.F. Whiteaves, the staff palaeontologist with the Geological Survey of Canada.  In 1907 his report of the discovery was published in the Ottawa Naturalist.

“On the 5th of September, 1906, a skeleton, which is obviously that of a very young individual of this same White Whale or Beluga, was found by Mr. Patrick Cannon, while digging a well on his farm, on lot 21 of the 11th concession of Pakenham, Lanark Co., Ont. The Rev. J. R. H. Warren, of the village of Pakenham, informs the writer that this skeleton was embedded in blue clay, fourteen feet below the surface, and that only a portion of it was dug out. In digging the well, he adds, some depth of blue clay was first bored through, then a mixture of clay and shells, in which the skeleton was found, was struck, and the excavation ended in more blue clay. The well has since been incased or lined with stone, and now contains a considerable depth of water, so that it may be somewhat difficult to dig out the remainder of the skeleton.
The bones that have been exhumed so far, from this excavation, with samples of the mixture of clay and shells in which they were found, have been kindly lent to the writer by Mr. Cannon. The former consist of a nearly perfect skull (with only a few of the teeth missing) and one of the tympanic bones, with most of the cervical vertebrae and three of the dorsals with some of their epiphyses. Or, as interpreted more definitely by Mr. L. M. Lambe, ot the skull, the left tympanic, the atlas, axis, third, fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae, and the second, third and fourth dorsal, with some of their epiphyses.” 

Whiteaves, J.F., 1907,  Notes on the Skeleton of a White Whale,  Ottawa Naturalist, vol. xx, No. 11, pp. 214-216 page 2015.

Today the bones of the Pakenham whale are part of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s national paleobiology collection.

After 111 years, the Pakenham whale skull is returning for a visit to the Mississippi River Valley where it was found.  By special arrangements with the Canadian Museum of Nature, it will be on display in the Ron Caron Auditorium of the Almonte Old Town Hall for the November 15-18 performances of Fern Martin’s historical musical, A Peak At Pakenham.




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