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'White Whale': 15-Million-Year-Old Sperm Whale Fossil Redefined

First Posted: Dec 10, 2015 12:46 PM EST

After countless years and numerous analyses, researchers have identified a 15 million-year-old fossil sperm whale fossil specimen as a white whale, according to a study at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

The large "Ontocetus oxymycterus" sperm whale fossil from the middle Miocene Monterey Formation of California was identified originally by Remington Kellogg, an American naturalist in 1925. Kellogg categorized the species in the genus "Ontocetus," which was initially a toothed taxon. Now, researchers have found that the species had a walrus' tusk and not cetacean teeth.

The researchers categorized the specimen to a new genus called "Albicetus," giving it a new name "Albicetus oxymycterus" (meaning white whale). Also, the researchers figured they could pay homage to Melville's "Moby Dick."

The researchers analyzed the whale's features, where they compared it to the sperm whale evolutionary tree. Initially, Kellogg had placed the species in the genus "Ontocetus," a mysterious toothed taxon, which was reported in the 19th century.

Large-bodied whale sizes developed during the evolution period of sperm whales and these large whales had large upper and lower teeth, according to the researchers. The exceedingly large teeth in sperm whales indicated that they once fed on large marine mammals such as seals and small whales. Modern sperm whales, on the other hand, feed on squid and they rarely ever use their teeth to chew anything.

"This find means that, around 15 million years ago when there were a lot of large sperm whales with big teeth like 'Albicetus,' it may have been a moment of peak richness in the number and diversity of marine mammals serving as prey to these whales," Alexandra Boersma, co-author of the study, said in a news release.

The findings of this study were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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