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Fossil of 'Moby Dick' Found Buried in Smithsonian Collection

Image: Fossil of 'Moby Dick' Found Buried in Smithsonian Collection
Artistic reconstruction of "Moby Dick" whale species. (A. Boersma/Smithsonian Institute)

By    |   Thursday, 10 Dec 2015 02:51 PM

A whale fossil estimated to be some 15 million years old may lend credence to the classic tale of "Moby Dick," according to new research published this week.

The historical event that inspired Herman Melville's novel was the sinking of the Essex, a whaling ship reportedly attacked by a giant whale, BBC reported. Ron Howard's movie based on the true story, "In the Heart of the Sea," opens Friday.

In the open access PLOS One journal this week, researchers outline fossil evidence from the storehouse of the Smithsonian National Museum of History that may support "Moby Dick's" plot.

The fossil was discovered by museum staff, who determined it had been mislabeled as an extinct walrus, BBC said. But further examination, which was challenging because of the rock encasing the 300-pound fossil, found that it belonged to an ancient cousin of today's sperm whales.

And its jawbone showed a significant difference in the creatures that have evolved today, and is also part of the reason the fossil was mislabeled, the Smithsonian said online.

"Modern sperm whales only have teeth in their lower jaw, partly because their main food source is squid," Alex Boersma, lead author of the new research, told BBC.

So when researchers examined the fossil, which was encased in rock, and saw a tooth in the upper jaw, they assumed it was a walrus, the Smithsonian magazine reported.

"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," Boersma, who worked with study co-author Nick Pyenson, told BBC. Today's sperm whales feed primarily on squid.

To excavate the fossil from its rock home and determine what it was, Pyenson and Boersma scanned it using technology to create a 3D model without having to move the rock around.

"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," says Boersma. "Having that 3D model was crucial."

The 3D model of the fossil is available to view online.

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A whale fossil estimated to be some 15 million years old may lend credence to the classic tale of "Moby Dick," according to new research published this week.
fossil, moby dick, smithsonian, 1920s
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2015-51-10
Thursday, 10 Dec 2015 02:51 PM
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