Don't tell Ahab: scientists find the real great white whale

Wed Dec 9, 2015 2:11pm EST
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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Don't call me Ishmael. Call me "Albicetus."

Scientists on Wednesday said fossils unearthed in 1909 in Santa Barbara, California, that had been wrongly categorized for decades as belonging to a group of extinct walruses were the remains of a fearsome sperm whale that swam the Pacific Ocean 15 million years ago during the Miocene Epoch.

They named it Albicetus, meaning "white whale," a reference to the leviathan in Herman Melville's classic 1851 novel "Moby-Dick," centering on Captain Ahab's obsession with a huge white sperm whale.

"Because the fossil specimen is a pale white color, and an ancient sperm whale, it seemed appropriate to honor Melville's infamous whale," said researcher Alex Boersma of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Albicetus (pronounced al-bee-SEE-tus) was around 20 feet long (6 meters) and likely weighed about 5 tons. It was a distant relative to today's sperm whales but smaller: modern ones reach 60 feet (18 meters). Its large conical teeth and its jaws were much more robustly built than today's sperm whales, indicating Albicetus was more vicious.

"The presence of large upper and lower teeth suggests that Albicetus was likely hyper-carnivorous, meaning that it fed primarily on other marine mammals such as smaller whales and seals," Boersma said.

"I wouldn't have wanted to be a seal in the Miocene oceans," added Nicholas Pyenson, the museum's curator of fossil marine mammals.

This feeding style is uncommon among modern whales, limited to killer whales. Modern sperm whales feed mainly on squid.   Continued...

Alex Boersma, research student at Smithsonian Institution and recent graduate of Vassar College, is shown with skull of Albicetus, meaning "white whale" in this image released on December 8, 2015. REUTERS/Jame Di Loreto/Smithsonian/via Reuters