Experts have revealed a new species of sperm whale, considered a real-life Moby Dick and dating back to 15 million years ago.
The fossil pertaining to the marine mammal, whom paleontologists have called “Albicetus oxymycterus” had actually been unearthed back in the 1880’s in the vicinity of Santa Barbara, California. The remnants of the whale consisted in its jaws and rostrum (snout or beak), alongside several teeth.
However, back in 1925 the animal was wrongly labelled as a walrus (Ontocetus oxymycterus), and condemned to oblivion and anonymity as it was kept locked away in a storage facility belonging to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
As more paleontologists examined the fossil across the decades, they expressed doubts at this classification, claiming that walruses have more flattened dentition, whereas this animal exhibited a rather conical tooth shape.
Despite issuing such comments, no one took the time to analyze the ancient petrified remains with greater precision and thoroughness, until recently.
When Alexandra Boersma, research student at the Smithsonian Institution, enlisted the help of Nicholas Pyenson, curator of Fossil Marine Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the mystery surrounding the 1925 discovery was finally unraveled.
Given the fact that the fossil weighed a hefty 300 pounds, the two researchers decided to scan each bone fragment, so as to create a computer model of the sea creature, in 3D.
This made it much easier to analyze every anatomical feature of the animal, and that’s how it was discovered that it belonged to an entirely different species than previously thought.
Albicetus oxymycterus is actually a prehistoric sperm whale, whose light grey coloring makes it eerily reminiscent of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. This is why in their taxonomy efforts researchers opted for this fitting name, which can be translated as “the white whale”.
The fearsome creature roamed the sea approximately 14 to 16 million years ago, back in the middle Miocene epoch, according to estimations.
After comparing the fossil with samples belonging to 36 other marine mammals of this kind, scientists came to the conclusion that Albicetus would’ve been dwarfed by contemporary sperm whales, which can reach up to 67 feet in length, and weigh up to 63 tons.
The ancient whale is estimated to have been around 3 times smaller than its modern-day counterparts, measuring just around 20 feet. Its giant conical teeth were placed on its top and bottom jaw as well, whereas currently sperm whales only have dentition on their lower jaw.
This allowed the prehistoric marine predator to successfully attack even bigger sized quarry such as seals and other whales, while its descendants have to survive on a much more limited diet, consisting predominantly of squid.
As scientists explain, placing the ancient marine mammal in its correct category has made it possible for them not just to gain more insight into this formerly unknown species of sperm whales, but also to add a new piece in the puzzle of whale evolution.
More details regarding this fascinating discovery can be found in a study featured in the journal PLOS ONE on Wednesday, December 9.
Image Source: Smithsonian Newsdesk