Lead author Alex Boersma with the type fossil sperm whale Albicetus oxymycterus (USNM 10923). Alex is also holding a tooth from the specimen, which is about 14-16 million years old. (Photo: NMNH Imaging / Smithsonian Institution).
In 1925, Remington Kellogg described and named a large fossil sperm whale, which was found in Santa Barbara, California, several years prior, and donated to the Smithsonian in 1924. Kellogg thought that this specimen was definitely a new species of fossil whale, but somehow thought that it belonged to an existing genus, Ontocetus, which had somewhat similar teeth. Decades later, as paleontologists recognized that Ontocetus was actually a name that belonged to ancient walruses, there was a consensus that Kellogg's big sperm whale needed a new name -- and renewed study.
A pod of Albicetus travel together in the Miocene Pacific Ocean, surfacing occasionally to breathe. Modern sperm whales are also known for forming these tight-knit groups, composed mainly of females and their calves. (Art by A. Boersma for the Smithsonian).
Today, Alex Boersma and I give a new name, Albicetus, to this enigmatic sperm whale, in a paper in PLOS ONE. The new name Albicetus oxymycterus is meant to evoke the very large and metaphorical white sperm whale (better known as Moby Dick) from Herman Melville's classic novel in American literature. Because the type and only known specimen weighs over 300 pounds (and takes a lot of muscle to move), it was ideal for 3D digitization. Click over to Smithsonian X 3D to see several different parts of the type specimen!