Someone should tell Ahab that scientists found a white whale fossil, or at the very least, found a new species that they named after the famous “Moby Dick” novel. The remains were not recently uncovered from the dark depths of the ocean, but from the dusty storage of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Back in 1909, scientists unearthed the fossils in California and were categorized in 1925. A naturalist by the name of Remington Kellogg placed the bones in a family of extinct walrus species. However, two researchers dug out the fossils, examined them, and found that they actually belong to an extinct species of sperm whales that lived around 15 million years ago.
It’s an exceptional discovery that fills an important evolutionary gap for sperm whales. The oldest fossil ever on record is 25 million years old. So, the new species is certainly not the first to appear, but it’s significant due to a few characteristics.
The white whale lived 15 million years ago, in the Miocene Epoch
Researchers corrected a 90 year old mistake, and found a new name for the extinct sperm whale. They called it “albicetus”, meaning white whale, named after the one in Herman Melville’s classic “Moby Dick” novel from 1851. It’s a beautiful tribute to an excellent story, centered around Captain’s Ahab obsession with a giant white sperm whale.
However, the newly discovered species was not precisely of such monstrous proportions. In fact, it’s impossible to tell if it was even white from the fossil, but given that the actual remains are ashen white and it was a sperm whale, it seemed like an appropriate tribute.
Wasn’t big enough to take down Captain Ahab
Albicetus was actually just 20 feet in length and weighed around 5 tonnes. That’s far beneath today’s sperm whales, which can grow three times the size, to 60 feet. It seemed that the ancient species was, in fact, smaller and lighter. But it certainly was not friendlier.
According to lead author of the study, Alex Boersma, albicetus had large teeth inside both its upper and lower jaw. This suggested that it was a hyper-carvinore who fed on marine animals, such as seals or smaller whales in the Miocene Epoch. This is highly unusual for modern whales, with the exception of orcas. Today’s sperm whales more often feed on giant squid.
Another feature of albicetus was its much smaller head, housing a tinier version of the spermaceti organ that is thought to play a role in finding prey. It was different in aspect and diet from today’s modern whales. In fact, according to Boersma, you’d even have a hard time believing they’re part of the same family. However, this just emphasizes the rich diversity of marine mammals.
Image source: abc.net.au