Smithsonian: White Whale Fossil Was An Ancient ‘Moby-Dick’

Scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History have discovered a new genus of carnivorous whale similar to the antagonist from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. According to a new study published in the open access journal PLOS One, the 14- to 15-million-year old fossil was misidentified as an extinct species of walrus by Smithsonian paleontologist Remington Kellogg, and the incorrect label remained for the better part of a century.

But now scientists have taken a closer look. Originally dug up in 1909 near Santa Barbara, California, difficulties were encountered in studying the fossil, which weighs a tremendous amount and is entombed in extensive rock. Smithsonian researcher Alexandra Boersma studied the massive 300-pound fossil by scanning it with lasers to create a 3-D digital model (available online here).

Using this method, scientists were able to study the fossil without physically moving the rock. They soon discovered that the specimen has canonical teeth, rather than the broad and flat teeth of a walrus, and identified it as a species of ancient whale.

The discovery of the upper teeth in the computer models, a feature not shared by the whale’s modern cousins, came relatively late in the study process and forced a significant re-write of the team’s research. Boersma was quoted as saying unlike modern sperm whales with relatively small teeth, this ancient “Moby Dick” had a mouth full of large teeth on both its upper and lower jaws and was most likely carnivorous.

“Modern sperm whales only have teeth in their lower jaw, partly because their main food source is squid,” she told the BBC.“To see a fossil sperm whale like ours that has these big prominent teeth in both the lower and upper jaws suggests they were feeding on something very different – possibly other marine animals.”

This discovery comes at a time when Hollywood is marketing a film version of the events that inspired Herman Melville’s classic work — namely, the real-life 1820 sinking of the whaling ship Essex, which was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale. The sinking would become the basis for Melville’s famous 1851 novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, similarly about an infamous white sperm whale that terrorizes the crew of a whaling ship and ultimately sinks the vessel.

As it turns out, a real-life Moby Dick may have existed and swam in the Pacific Ocean 15 million years ago during the Miocene Epoch. Inspired by the fossil’s white color, the scientists have given it the name Albicetus oxymycterus as a tribute to Melville’s novel.

“We named it Albicetus oxymycterus because it’s a sperm whale like Moby Dick, and because the fossil is white,” says research co-author and NMNH marine mammal curator Nick Pyenson to the Washington Post.

The word “albicetus,” fittingly enough, means “white whale.”

It’s possible that the differences between this ancient “Moby Dick” and our modern sperm whales can be chalked up to evolution — the ancient seas were a very different place with much more diverse marine life for the whale to prey on as food, hence the rows of teeth. The ancient whale was also much smaller, measuring in at about six meters (about 20 feet) long rather than the 16 meters (about 52.5 feet) of the modern sperm whale. Some of the largest can reach 18 meters (60 feet).

ABC News reported that it probably weighed about five tons. In addition, it did not have the block-shaped head of its modern incarnation, but had a less bulbous forehead caused by a smaller spermaceti organ. Albicetus’ carnivorous feeding habits are uncommon in modern whales, having only been observed among killer whales. The ancient “Moby Dick” was probably a very fearsome creature that terrorized the ancient oceans.

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)