Pliny the elder was not crazy. There were whales in the Mediterranean sea

Pliny the elder wrote in the first century A. D. the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) mothers and calves, like this one here, to the attacked by orcas in the vicinity of the Strait of Gibraltar. Now scientists believe him. Credit: robertharding/Alamy

Scientists have questioned the credibility of Pliny the elder is now 2000 year old account of killer whales hunt whale calves in the neighbourhood of the Straits of Gibraltar, since the marine mammals are not known to that area. Now, archaeological evidence suggests Pliny knew exactly what he was talking about.

Researchers discovered the whale bones of the north atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and the north Atlantic gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) in the ruins of an ancient Roman fish-processing facility located on the Strait of Gibraltar. The discovery was published today (July 10) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

In the first century A. D., Pliny the elder famously wrote about the orcas (also called killer whales, though they are in the dolphin family) attacking whales with their calves in the Bay of Cadiz, near the Strait of Gibraltar, the starting point of the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean sea, which lies between Africa and Europe. According to Callum Roberts in “The Unnatural History of the Sea” (Island Press, 2008), Pliny described how whales “during the summer periods hide in a certain calm and spacious inlet, and take marvellous delight in the breeding.” Pliny went further with a description of the brutal battles he witnessed the killer whales preyed on the mother whales with their calves. [See Stunning Photos of the Whales]

But this had no meaning to ecologists. There are very few whales along the Mediterranean Sea, as described in a 2016 report published in the journal advances in Marine Biology, and none of these species are known to use the area as a calving ground. This fact led scientists to question whether Pliny’s account was correct, or if maybe he was mistaking dolphins for the whales.

That is, until researchers discovered ancient whale bones in the ruins of a fish-processing site in the ancient Roman city of Baelo Claudia, near today Tarifa, Spain. Pliny ‘ s account “does not correspond to something that can be seen today, but it fits perfectly to the ecology as a right and gray whales used to be present,” study co-author Anne Charpentier, an ecologist at the University of Montpellier, said in a statement from the University of York.

Roman fishermen harvested large fish, such as tuna, and now, archaeologists wonder if they were harvesting the whales, too. The fishermen probably not the technology that is necessary for going out to sea to hunt the great whales, said lead study author Ana Rodrigues, an ecologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. “But right and gray whales with their calves would come very close to the coast, making them tempting targets to local fishermen,” they said in the statement.

The discovery points to the fact that even heavily explored regions have their secrets. “It seems incredible that we could have lost and then forgotten, the two large whale species in an area as well studied as the Mediterranean sea,” Rodrigues said. “It makes you wonder what we have forgotten.”

Original article on Live Science.


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