‘White whale’ fossil was an ancient ‘Moby Dick’

Ancient fossils misidentified as an extinct type of walrus for nearly a century actually belonged to a new genus of whale similar to the creature depicted in the Herman Melville novel Moby Dick, research has discovered.

According to BBC News and the Washington Post, scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC found the remains in storage at the National Museum of Natural History. During an analysis of the 14 to 16 million year old fossil, the researchers found that it did not possess the flatten tusks common in walruses—but instead had conical teeth similar to whales.

Unlike its cousins, however, this whale genus had enormous teeth, according to Alex Boersma, a research student at the Smithsonian and lead author of a new study published in the latest edition of the journal PLOS One. Also, the creature had “prominent teeth” in both its upper and its lower jaws, not just the lower jaws like their modern counterparts, she explained.

“To see a fossil sperm whale like ours… suggests they were feeding on something very different – possibly other marine animals,” Boersma told BBC News. Her team called the beast Albicetus oxymycterus, “because it’s a sperm whale like Moby Dick, and because the fossil is white,” said co-author and NMNH marine mammal curator Nick Pyenson, according to the Post.

3D computer models essential for classifying the new genus

The fossil was originally mischaracterized by Remington Kellogg, a Smithsonian paleontologist who helped introduce protections for whales before going on to become the first chairman of the International Whaling Commission. The incorrect label remained until Pyenson decided to take another look at the nearly 300-pound remains, which was entombed in rock.

They used lasers to scan the fossil and used the 3D data to create digital models, which allowed scientists to thoroughly examine the fossil without actually having the move the rock. Using this technique allowed them to find the upper teeth in the computer models—a discovery which came late in the research process, forcing a significant re-write, according to Boersma.

“We were looking at the computer model and talking over the phone and Nick said, ‘I think it has upper teeth,’” she explained to BBC News. “We had to re-evaluate our paper which was exciting and stressful at the same time because it opened up our research to new possibilities and was the moment we realized that this whale was different to anything else in the fossil records.”

The authors estimate that the whale would have been about 20 feet long, or about one-third the size of a modern-day sperm whale, the Post said. In addition, it does not have the block-shaped head of its modern relatives, which Pyenson and Boersma said are an indication of the degree to which these creatures have evolved over the years.


Feature Image: Smithsonian Institute