Fos­sil whale with 14-inch fangs dis­cov­ered in Peru­vian desert

Austin American-Statesman - - THURSDAY BRIEFING - By Raphael G. Satter

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.”

C. Letenneur

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.

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