Romans may have hunted Mediterranean whales to near-extinction

"It seems incredible that we could have lost and then forgotten two large whale species in a region as well-studied as the Mediterranean," said lead researcher Ana Rodrigues.
By Brooks Hays  |  July 11, 2018 at 10:09 AM
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July 11 (UPI) -- Until now, scientists thought the Mediterranean Sea was outside the historical range of the right and gray whale. But 2,000-year-old whale bones recovered from Roman ruins suggests the whales were not only once present in the Mediterranean, but may have been early victims of whale hunting.

Researchers recovered the ancient whale bones from the ruins of a Roman fish processing factory located near the Strait of Gibraltar. DNA and collagen analysis confirmed the bones belong to the North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, and the Atlantic gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus.

The right whale population is now confined to a small region off the coast of eastern North America, and the gray whale has been completely driven from the Atlantic. Today, gray whales are only found in the Pacific.

"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," Camilla Speller, a researcher at the University of York, said in a news release. "The findings contribute to the debate on whether, alongside catching large fish such as tuna, the Romans had a form of whaling industry or if perhaps the bones are evidence of opportunistic scavenging from beached whales along the coast line."

Though the Romans operated a sizable fishing industry near the Strait of Gibraltar, salting fish and trading them throughout the empire, they didn't possess the technology to capture large whales in the open sea. But if right hand gray whales came to the Mediterranean to calve, adults and calves likely came close to shore, making them an easier target for Roman fishermen.

The findings, published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, shed new light on historical accounts of the Mediterranean ecosystem.

"We can finally understand a 1st century description by the famous Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, of killer whales attacking whales and their new-born calves in the Cadiz bay," said Anne Charpentier, lecturer at the University of Montpellier. "It 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."

Researchers hope their discovery inspires archaeologists and paleontologists to reconsider the makeup of the ancient Mediterranean ecosystem.

"It seems incredible that we could have lost and then forgotten two large whale species in a region as well-studied as the Mediterranean," said lead researcher Ana Rodrigues, from the French National Centre for Scientific Research. "It makes you wonder what else we have forgotten."

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