Fossil whale with 14-inch fangs discovered in Peruvian desert
LONDON — Scientists have discovered an ancient whale whose bite ripped huge chunks of flesh out of other whales about 12 million years ago — and they’ve named it after the author of “Moby Dick.”
The prehistoric sperm whale grew to between 42 and 60 feet long, not unusual by the standards for modern whales. But unlike current sperm whales, Leviathan melvillei, named for writer Herman Melville, sported vicious, tusk-like teeth about 14 inches long.
The ancient beast evidently dined on other whales, researchers said in today’s issue of the journal Nature, in which they report finding a skull of the beast in what is now Peruvian desert.
Anthony Friscia, a paleontologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who wasn’t involved in the discovery, said scattered finds of huge fossilized teeth had long hinted at the ancient whale’s existence. But without a skull to fit them in, the creature’s shape, size and feeding habits remained a mystery.
“The fact that they have found the entire jaw — well, almost the entire skull — is what’s pretty unprecedented,” he said.
The ancient beasts “were the killer whales of their time, although on a much grander scale,” Friscia said. “They were close to the biggest things around.”
The researchers named it in tribute to the 19th-century author’s classic tale of the great white whale, which includes frequent digressions on natural history that punctuate the action.
“There is a chapter about fossils,” said one of the paper’s authors, Olivier Lambert of the Natural History Museum in Paris. “Melville even mentions some of the fossils that I studied for my Ph.D. thesis.”
An artist’s rendering depicts the extinct whale Leviathan melvillei, whose skull was recently found, using its huge teeth against a medium-sized baleen whale.