A whale fossil not that far from the fictional Moby Dick — and believed to be millions of years old — might prove that whales in the ancient seas weren’t so different from the white monster of legend. In a new research analysis published earlier this week, parts of a massive whale skeleton were (re)discovered just in time for Ron Howard’s new movie, “In the Heart of the Sea”. According to News Max this Thursday, December 10, 2015, the 300-pound fossil has been reconstructed as a 3D digital replica, which hints through its powerful jawbone that this creature of the deep might have once been a powerful hunter.
“Call me Ishmael” is one of the most seminal opening lines of any text, and Moby Dick remains a classic literary novel by Herman Melville. It features the infamous Captain Ahab against the deadly white whale. Yet an ancient whale fossil brought to the surface this year after a mislabeling incident is proving that the old stories might be anything but simply stories. The new research from PLOS One Journal suggests this week that ancient whales show significant differences from the whales you might find under the sea today, namely in their jaws and teeth. In fact, researchers have been able to create an impressive outline and model of this 15 million year old whale thanks to new fossil evidence featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of History archives that are lending quite a bit of credence to the popular plot of Moby Dick.
As stated in a news report via DB Techno News, the fossil was originally discovered by members of the Smithsonian museum staff. They speculated the piece was incorrectly labeled not as whale, but as a long-since extinct walrus, leading to further investigation. That detailed examination of this ancient fossil — further complicated by it being sheathed in a bed of rock — instead revealed the bones to belong to a very old cousin of contemporary sperm whales.
One of the most striking differences between the whale of the past and the whale today, say researchers, is in the jawbone. This is likely the reason the whale fossil, which some are fondly calling Moby Dick, was improperly labeled in the first place. “Modern sperm whales only have teeth in their lower jaw, partly because their main food source is squid,” shared Alex Boersma, primary author of the marine research, in a recent statement to BBC News.
Therefore, experts at the time quickly believed that the rock-encased fossil belonged to a walrus due to the presence of a tooth in the upper jaw. The Smithsonian magazine also shares that these mighty whales of the ancient past might have been more aggressive hunters than they are today, and might have been preying on a significantly different food source.
While modern sperm whales feed mostly on sea squid, those 15 million years ago might have been going after much bigger “fish” to fry, so to say. “To see a fossil sperm whale like ours that has these big prominent teeth in both the lower and upper jaws suggests they were feeding on something very different — possibly other marine animals,” added Boersma in a statement to BBC.
Co-author of the “Moby Dick” fossil study, Nick Pyenson, worked closely alongside Boersma to help excavate the 300-pound fossil out of its rocky tomb, bringing this newfound knowledge out of the sea and into the museum experts’ capable hands. They were also able to use modern technology to create a striking 3D model that showcases how the ancient whale might have looked at the time. Based on its size, this was no easy feat, but the researchers are proud of the progress either way. As always, it looks like fresh glances into science and history never fail to disappoint.
“This specimen is huge and the first time we rolled it over to see the underside, it took four people and we sacrificed a couple of fingers,” Boersma concluded. “Having that 3D model was crucial.”