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'White Whale' Fossil Discovered

Dec 10, 2015 03:29 PM EST
A team at the Smithsonian recently re-classified a 15 million-year-old fossil as a 20-foot long sperm whale from a different branch from today's sperm whales. It was originally classified in 1925 as a type of prehistoric walrus.
(Photo : A. Boersma)

An extinct 15 million-year-old sperm whale fossil that is ash white -- the fossil, that is -- in color has been re-classified by scientists with the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and named Albicetus. The term means "white whale" and is a reference to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick character Captain Ahab, who was obsessed with bringing down a legendary ghost-colored sperm whale.

The fossil was originally named in 1925 by a Smithsonian scientist, Remington Kellogg. He called it Ontocetus oxymycterus, mistakenly categorizing it as in a group of extinct walruses, according to a release.

A team at Smithsonian recently re-examined the fossil for the first time in 90 years, saying that the species is actually Albicetus oxymycterus, which is a new branch on the family tree of the sperm whale. It also means, they say that ancient seas had a rich number and diversity of marine mammals beyond what we've previously known.

The findings were recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The fossils of this whale are the skull, jaws and teeth, and they date from the Middle Miocene, around 14-16 million years ago. They were found in the 1880s in California. The team estimates that the whale grew to 20 feet in length, according to a statement.

"One of our most important findings in studying Albicetus was that it not only represented an entirely new genus of fossil sperm whale, but it also prompted us to look where exactly Albicetus fit into the evolution of sperm whales," Alexandra Boersma, lead author and a research student at the museum during the research, said in the release.

"Modern sperm whales are unique in the whale world, with their ability to dive nearly two kilometers and their complex social groups, and they have the largest brains of any creature alive today. Understanding the evolutionary context in which living sperm whales evolved has a lot of implications for disciplines outside of paleobiology," Boersma said in the release. 

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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