The discovery of whale fossils in the ruins of a Roman fish processing factory reveals two species virtually lost from the Mediterranean Sea.
A new study of ancient bones, found at the Strait of Gibraltar, suggests the briny deep—contrary to popular belief—was in fact home to right and gray whales.
Researchers from the University of York used ancient DNA analysis and collagen fingerprinting to identify bones as belonging to the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and Atlantic gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus).
The former, with their tendency to stay close to the coast and high blubber content, were once a preferred target for whalers. Now, right whales are among the most endangered baleens in the world; only about 400 individuals exist in the western North Atlantic Ocean.
Their gray whale counterpart, meanwhile, completely disappeared from the North Atlantic in the 18th century; they are now restricted to waters in the North Pacific Ocean.
“Our study shows that these two species were once part of the Mediterranean marine ecosystem, and probably used the sheltered basin as a calving ground,” according to co-author Camilla Speller of the University of York.
Whales are often neglected in archaeological studies, she explained, because their bones are too fragmented to be identified. These modern molecular methods, however, “are opening whole new windows into past ecosystems.”
“The findings contribute to the debate on whether, alongside catching large fish such as tuna, the Romans had a form of whaling industry,” Speller said in a statement. “Or if perhaps the bones are evidence of opportunistic scavenging from beached whales along the coastline.”
Both species are migratory, meaning the whales swim north each winter to breeding and calving grounds in warmer tropical waters, then return south in the spring.
Their presence east of Gibraltar, according to the York researchers, points to previous entry into the Mediterranean Sea to give birth.
It sounds, though, like these poor whales were in the wrong place at the wrong time: Gibraltar was once the center of a massive fish-producing industry, which exported products across the Roman Empire.
And while folks back then didn’t have the necessary technology to capture large whales, they were likely tempted by the nearby whales and their calves—easy targets for local fishermen.
Read more about right and grey whales and their history in a new paper, published by the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.
“It seems incredible that we could have lost and then forgotten two large whale species in a region as well-studied as the Mediterranean,” lead study author Ana Rodrigues, of the French National Center for Scientific Research, said. “It makes you wonder what else we have forgotten.”
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