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A whale of a fossil is named in honor of Herman Melville

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new fossil of giant sperm whale named for Herman Melville attacking a baleen whaleThe large leviathan that was the bane of Ahab’s existence in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has a new ancient relative that might have lived up to the fictional beast’s monstrosity.

Leviathan melvillei, a giant toothed whale, is described in a new paper, published online June 29 in Nature (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group). The researchers have studied one specimen’s fossil remains—several teeth and portions of the jaw. From this, the team estimates that the skull would have been at least three meters long—and the body longer than 13 meters.

The newly described beast lived some 12 million to 13 million years ago and was first discovered two years ago in modern-day Peru. The teeth of this raptorial whale (meaning it fed on large prey) were enormous, measuring more than 36 centimeters long.

The authors of the study, led by Olivier Lambert of Department de Paleontologie at the Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique in Brussels, hypothesize that the L. melvillei would have been a fearsome predator on the high Miocene seas, eating prey including baleen whales. This shapes up to be a very different feeding strategy and diet than today’s sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), which have many smaller teeth, though a larger literary reputation.


Image of artists reconstruction of an L. melvillei attacking a baleen whale courtesy of C. Letenneur/MNHN


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  1. 1. WilliamStoertz 3:45 am 07/1/2010

    I just walked out of a class in which I taught my Korean students about Herman Melville’s story "Moby Dick"! Turned on my computer, connected to internet, logged onto "Scientific American" (one of my favorites!), and up leaped your article on L. melvillei. May I ask, is this whale still roaming the seas? And, if not, what caused it to go extinct?

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  2. 2. karlchwe 4:20 pm 07/1/2010

    @ David, This beast isn’t remarkable for being big, it is remarkable for being a big whale with big teeth. It is a type that doesn’t exist any more. (Sperm whales are also predators, but have tiny teeth and eat squid.)

    @William, no, it is not roaming the seas. It is extinct, and lived about 12 million years ago.

    Here is a much better article on the topic.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Wakaleo 6:01 pm 07/1/2010

    It looks just like Monstro the giant whale that swallowed Pinnochio and his dad Gepetto in the Walt Disney cartoon film. Too bad it wasn’t at least 400 feet long like that one. Or actually a good thing that it wasn’t!

    Link to this
  4. 4. jack.123 5:58 am 07/2/2010

    It would be nice to see some pictures of the fossils.

    Link to this

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