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Ancient ‘Moby Dick’ Had Giant Bite

July 1, 2010

Fossilized remains of a giant, prehistoric sperm whale that lived 12 million years ago and had teeth and jaws so large it preyed on whales more than half its size have been discovered in Peru’s Pisco basin, scientists reported Wednesday.

The Leviathan melvillei, named after “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville, grew up to 60 feet long, and had interlocking, tusk-like teeth 14 inches in length for killing and capturing prey, the scientists said.

Although paleontologists have long suspected a mammal such as Leviathan existed in ancient times, only a few such gigantic teeth had ever turned up in the fossil record — until now. 

But the findings by Olivier Lambert of Belgium’s Royal Institute of Natural Sciences and his team leave little doubt that such a mammal existed during the Miocene epoch.

Lambert and his colleagues discovered the whale’s skull and jaw, which had interlocking top and bottom teeth each as long and thick as a human forearm.

“It must have eaten very large animals, and the most common prey at the site are baleen whales about seven or eight meters long. It was a super-predator,” Lambert said during an interview with the AFP news agency.

“We propose that Leviathan fed mostly on high-energy content medium-size baleen whales.  As a top predator, together with the contemporaneous giant shark Carcharocles megalodon, it probably had a profound impact on the structuring of Miocene marine communities,” the authors wrote in a report about the findings published in the British journal Nature.

Today’s sperm whales are also impressive, deep-diving hunters, although they must rely upon suction to ingest their prey since their teeth are relatively small and are limited to the lower jaw.

Leviathan is instead closer to present-day killer whales, or orcas — but three or four times as large.  

Leviathan’s strong, tusk-like teeth clung to prey struggling to escape, Lambert explained.

“Baleen whales have hugely powerful tails, and when they struggle the tension would be enormous for the predator in whose jaws it has been caught,” he said.

Image Caption: Artistic view of the giant raptorial sperm whale Leviathan melvillei attacking a medium-size baleen whale off the coast of the area now occupied by Peru. Credit C. Letenneur (MNHN)

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