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“Call Me Albicetus”: Fossil Sperm Whale Is Named in Honor of Moby-Dick

December 9, 2015
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Albicetus; art by A. Boersma for the Smithsonian

“Call Me Albicetus”: Fossil Sperm Whale Is Named in Honor of Moby-Dick

A Smithsonian team of scientists re-examined a fossil sperm whale for the first time in 90 years and created an entirely new group in the sperm whale family, Albicetus, and introduced the species, Albicetus oxymycterus, to a new branch on the sperm whale family tree.

The team named the new genus Albicetus, translating to “white whale,” in honor of Herman Melville’s famous leviathan, Moby Dick, because of the fossils’ bone-white color.

The fossils of this sperm whale, which represent the animal’s skull, jaws and teeth, were found in California in the 1880s. The scientists contend that the toothy fossils provide evidence of ancient seas rich in the number and diversity of marine mammals.

In this reconstruction, a pod of Albicetus travel together through the Miocene Pacific Ocean (14–16 million years ago), surfacing occasionally to breathe. 

The team’s findings are published in the Dec. 9 issue of the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

To view and download a 3-D model of Albicetus, visit http://3d.si.edu.