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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

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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