Pliny the Elder’s Natural History was left uncompleted when he died trying to rescue friends from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. But the Roman scholar’s encyclopedic work still stands as the most impressive synthesis of scientific knowledge in the ancient era, as scientists have once again learned.
In Natural History, Pliny gives a vivid account of orcas attacking whales at the Strait of Gibraltar. Using the term “balæna” to describe an unknown species of whales, Pliny wrote:
It is said that [the whales] are not to be seen in the ocean of Gades before the winter solstice, and that at periodical seasons they retire and conceal themselves in some calm capacious bay, in which they take a delight in bringing forth. This fact, however, is known to the orca, an animal which is peculiarly hostile to the balæna, and the form of which cannot be in any way adequately described, but as an enormous mass of flesh armed with teeth. This animal attacks the balænain its places of retirement, and with its teeth tears its young, or else attacks the females which have just brought forth, and, indeed, while they are still pregnant.
For many decades, scientists were dubious about this passage since whales do not, in the modern era, use the area as a calving ground. But newly discovered whale bones lend credibility to Pliny’s account.
As LiveScience reports:
There are very few whale species that visit the Mediterranean Sea, as outlined in a 2016 report published in the journal Advances in Marine Biology, and none of those species are known to use the area as a calving ground. This fact led scientists to wonder if Pliny’s account was accurate, or if perhaps he was mistaking dolphins for whales.
That is, until researchers discovered ancient whale bones within the ruins of a fish-processing site in the ancient Roman city of Baelo Claudia, near today’s Tarifa, Spain. Pliny’s account “doesn’t match anything that can be seen there today, but it fits perfectly with the ecology if 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.