Your Daily Fossil

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Mar 4

Livyatan melvillei 

When: Miocene (~12 - 13 million years ago)

Where: Peru

What: Livyatan is a gigantic toothed whale. It is fairly closely related to the living sperm whale, and is thought to have been about the same size, at 45 feet (~14 meters) long. This is an estimate as the whole body was not found, but its head was fairly well preserved, and its skull alone is 10 feet (~3 meters long) Unlike the modern sperm whales, it had a full set of teeth in both its upper and lower jaws, and its lower jaw was not reduced compared to its skull. Inside these giant jaws were giant teeth, the largest of which are 1.2 feet (~36 cm) long. What did they eat with these massive jaws and gigantic teeth? Well, living sperm whales eat very large prey, such as giant squids and megamouth sharks with their comparatively small jaws and teeth. It has been suggested that Livyatan was feeding upon other whales at the time! Such as the reconstruction above where a Livyatan  dramatically ruins the day of a Cetotherium (an extinct baleen whale). 

The name ‘Livyatan melvillei’ is meant to bring to mind Melville and his famous white sperm whale Moby Dick. Originally the name published was Leviathan melvilleibut it had to be changed, as the genus name of Leviathan was already taken! It belongs to a poorly known species of mastodon named by a researcher in the mid 1800s. Thus, the spelling of this giant whale’s name had to be altered, as once a name is applied to something it is there forever! Let this be a lesson to carefully check your species names before you publish them, as there are a few cases of something like this happening. Mostly it seems species of theropod dinosaurs are accidentally given names that have already been applied to beetles. Whoops! 

The area of Peru where Livyatan  was found is today a harsh desert, but geologists think that during the Miocene this area was an ocean paradise; a warm shallow lagoon. Dozens of marine species have been found in this desert, not only a variety of toothed and baleen whales, but also sharks and pinnipeds. 

Reconstruction by C. Letenneur, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France