- A fossil has been identified as a warm-water relative of the beluga and narwhal.
- Belugas and narwhals live in the arctic but this species lived in temperate and tropical regions.
An ancient beast related to today's Arctic-loving beluga whales and narwhals seemed to prefer toasty, tropical waters.
Called Bohaskaia monodontoides, the new species of toothed whale lived some 3 million to 4 million years ago during the Pliocene in warm water. Researchers aren't sure why modern belugas have left these tropical destinations and strayed pole-ward, where life would seem to be more difficult.
The fossil had been sitting in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History since its discovery in a mine near Hampton, Va., in 1969. The nearly complete skull represents the only fossilized remains known of the new species. Before it was closely examined, the skull's discoverers loosely identified it as a beluga whale and left it in storage.
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In 2010, Jorge Velez-Juarbe, Smithsonian pre-doctoral fellow from Howard University, finally took a close look at the skull. He compared it with the skulls of closely related toothed whales, like modern Arctic belugas and narwhals (also called unicorns of the sea for their twisted horn). While the skull shared many features, particularly in the face and snout, with modern toothed whales, the researchers say there are enough unique features to merit its placement in a new genus and species.