Monday, 14 December 2015

White fossil was 'Moby Dick' of the ancient sea

By Jane O'BrienBBC News, Washington

9 December 2015 

In Hollywood's version of the events that inspired the classic novel Moby Dick, a giant sperm whale terrorises the crew of a whaling ship and eventually destroys the vessel.

Based on the true story of the sinking of the Essex in 1820, the film, In the Heart of the Sea, portrays the whale as a merciless monster that pushes its shipwrecked victims to the brink of madness.

Did such a terrifying creature ever exist? Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution say it probably did - but 15 million years ago.

They've identified an ancient genus of sperm whale that, unlike its modern cousins, had enormous teeth.

"Modern sperm whales only have teeth in their lower jaw, partly because their main food source is squid," says Alex Boersma, lead author of the new research published in the open access journal PLoS One.

"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."

The fossil was part of a collection amassed in the 1920s by Remington Kellogg, a palaeontologist who helped introduce protections for whales and became the first chairman of the International Whaling Commission.

The specimen was placed in the vast stores of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington where staff noticed that the label was incorrect. It said the bones belonged to an extinct walrus instead of a sperm whale.

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