Newly Discovered Whale Species Named With A Nod To Moby Dick

For 90 years, the strikingly white fossils of a 15 million-year-old sperm whale sat on a storage shelf in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, incorrectly grouped with the remains of extinct walruses.

A duo of Smithsonian scientists recently took those forgotten fossils down from that old shelf, and, after re-examining and reclassifying them, realized they belonged to a previously undiscovered species of sperm whale.

Welcome to the modern world, Albicetus oxymycterus.

Alexandra Boersma, lead researcher on a study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE, and Nick Pyenson, the museum’s curator of marine mammals, chose to name their discovered genus Albicetus because it translates to “white whale.” The name pays homage to the pale mystical leviathan that captured Captain Ahab’s obsession in the novel Moby Dick.

“While we don’t know what its skin color in life actually looked like, the color of the fossil is an ashen white,” Pyenson said in a press release.

“It only seemed appropriate to evoke [Herman] Melville’s white sperm whale, Moby Dick,” he added. “Especially since we studied A. oxymycterus alongside the skeletons of some of its modern-day relatives in the collections here at the Smithsonian.”

Below, an interactive 3D rendering of the fossil, featuring the beak and lower jaw of the whale.

The fossils, which are from the animal’s skull, jaw and teeth, were discovered in California in the 1880s and date back 14 to 16 million years. A Smithsonian scientist incorrectly identified them as belonging to a walrus in 1925.

Properly identifying the new species has allowed Boersma and Pyenson to better understand the evolution of sperm whales.

“One of our most important findings in studying Albicetus was that it not only represented an entirely new genus of —> Read More