“We named it Albicetus oxymycterus because it’s a sperm whale like Moby Dick, and because the fossil is white,” says study author Nick Pyenson, marine mammal curator at the NMNH.
The 14-16 million year old fossil was collected near Santa Barbara, Calif., and, in 1925, misidentified by Smithsonian scientist Remington Kellogg. Since then, other scientists have noted that the fossil has conical teeth, while walrus tusks are more flattened, Pyenson says.
“They’d mention it in footnotes in papers, but no one did the job of studying it taxonomically and giving it a new name,” he says.
They were probably stymied by the fossil’s size, Pyenson says. Weighing in at about 300 pounds, the Albicetus fossil is tough to manipulate and study. To examine it without risking a hernia, Pyenson and his co-author Alexandra Boersma scanned the fossil it to create a 3-D model (which you can play with online.)
Pyenson and Boersma estimate that whale was on the small side, just 20 feet long compared to the 60 feet or more boasted by modern sperm whales. But don’t be fooled by its size. While modern sperm whales have relatively small teeth only on the lower jaw, Albicetus had a mouth full of huge chompers.
Boersma suspects Albicetus was out snacking on other marine mammals, like seals or perhaps even the giant walrus it was misidentified as.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to run into it in the water,” says Boersma.