Evidence of 'New' Whale Behavior Found in Ancient Myth

Dismissed as inaccurate, old texts hold evidence modern scientists have missed: study
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 4, 2023 6:30 AM CST
Evidence of 'New' Whale Behavior Found in Ancient Myth
A depiction of “aspidochelone,” circa AD1270.   (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2011, researchers described what they thought was a new phenomenon. They'd observed humpback and Bryde's whales opening their jaws, then waiting for prey fish to swim into their waiting mouths, in what's been dubbed trap fishing, per Smithsonian. The practice has been observed at least a dozen times since that study, including in this viral video. But new research claims the behavior is not at all new—in fact, it's ancient, described in millennia-old myths. Experts at Australia's Flinders University have uncovered descriptions of the remarkably similar feeding methods of an ancient Greek beast called "aspidochelone," first discussed 2,000 years ago, and the Norse sea monster "hafgufa," accounts of which date to the 13th century. Their theory: the ancients were really talking about whales.

John McCarthy, a maritime archaeologist at Flinders, first noticed that the accounts of these mythical beasts accurately described whale behavior. "Once I started looking into it in detail and discussing it with colleagues who specialize in medieval literature, we realized that the oldest versions of these myths do not describe sea monsters at all, but are explicit in describing a type of whale," he says in a statement. "It is really interesting that ancient and medieval people were seeing enough whales and getting close enough to whales to actually be able to observe this behavior as accurately as they did when modern people haven't," adds Erin Sebo, an expert in historic manuscripts at Flinders and co-author of the study published Tuesday in Marine Mammal Science, per ABC Australia.

That might be because "whale populations are just beginning to recover toward their natural, pre-whaling size, and their behavior is changing as their numbers go up," McCarthy tells Live Science. The study adds to research showing truth concealed within myth. Among recent strides in this area, Patrick Nunn, a geography professor at Australia's University of the Sunshine Coast, has compiled oral histories of Aboriginal Australians that accurately track sea level rise up to 7,000 years ago. "The tendency is to dismiss medieval accounts of the natural world as misinformed and inaccurate," McCarthy tells LiveScience. But "by finding these descriptions in medieval and ancient manuscripts, we were actually able to give scientists a lot of evidence that they assumed was lost," Sebo tells ABC. (More mythical creature stories.)

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