Scientists find Moby Dick's ancestor on a museum shelf

Discovered in 1925 and sitting in storage at the Smithsonian Institution ever since, the ancient sperm whale Albicetus oxymycterus was originally classified as a walrus.

A pod of Albicetus, meaning "white whale," travel together through the Miocene Pacific Ocean, surfacing occasionally to breathe in this artist's rendering released to Reuters on December 8, 2015.

Moby Dick has gotten a revision. The whale, that is, not the classic novel by Herman Melville.

Sperm whales are big, but their part of the family tree is relatively small, with just three known living species. But their fossil history suggests that the family once contained a rich variety of whales of all shapes and sizes. 

Now, scientists can add to this array Albicetus oxymycterus, a sperm whale that lived some 14 million to 16 million years ago.

In a study published on Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, Smithsonian researcher Alex Boersma and her coauthor, Smithsonian marine mammal curator Nicholas Pyenson, notes that, when the massive, white-gray rostrum, jaws, and isolated teeth were uncovered near Santa Barbara, Calif in 1925, the specimen was classified as a walrus and put in storage at the Smithsonian Institution in Washinton, DC.

But over the following 90 years, other scientists "noted that the fossil has conical teeth, while walrus tusks are more flattened," Dr. Pyenson tells The Washington Post in an interview. 

“They’d mention it in footnotes in papers, but no one did the job of studying it taxonomically and giving it a new name,” he says.

So Pyenson and Ms. Boersma pulled the 300-pound fossil off the shelf. To avoid having to wrestle with the behemoth, which Pyenson says may have discouraged earlier investigations, they scanned the bones and created a 3D model.

What they describe in the study is an ancestor that bears few similarities to the subject of Ahab’s epic hunt.

Melville’s story of the elusive white whale was inspired by the New England author's experience on a whaling ship, as well as two stories, one a kind of folk tale based on the rumored killing of an albino whale in the Pacific in 1839, as well as the true story of the Essex, a whaler that was sunk by a bull sperm whale in the southern Pacific; the ship's survivors were left marooned for 92 days, with some resorting to cannibalism, The Guardian reports.

At about 20 feet long, Albicetus – whose name means "white whale" – would have been about a third of the size of the largest modern-day sperm whales. Its iconic rectangular head was also much smaller, too; those that swim today house the world’s largest brains.

Still, the ancient version was likely ferocious in its own right.

“[P]robably the biggest difference would be this really big, gnarly jaw full of these huge teeth,” Boersma says in an interview with The Guardian. Though the teeth are about the same size as in modern-day sperm whales, whose teeth only line the bottom jaw, so “proportional to the smaller Albicetus,” The Guardian reports, “they were kind of comically huge in both their upper and lower jaws”.

The researchers acknowledge that it’s impossible to identify skin color from a fossil, Boersma  calls these fossils’ “ashen white color…kind of unusual for fossils,” she tells The Guardian. “To have a big white sperm whale fossil – it just seemed appropriate.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Scientists find Moby Dick's ancestor on a museum shelf
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today