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Ancient sperm whale's giant head uncovered

The largest fossilized skull of the mammal is found off the coast of Peru. The 12-million-year-old skull belonged to a now-extinct genus and species of sperm whale.

July 03, 2010|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times

Paleontologists digging near the coast of Peru have uncovered the largest fossilized skull of a sperm whale ever found.

The 12-million-year-old skull, which measures nearly 10 feet across, belonged to a now-extinct genus and species of sperm whale that may have been as long as 57 feet. The fossil includes the longest documented sperm whale teeth, measuring more than 14 fearsome inches.

The whale, described in a paper published Thursday in the journal Nature, was christened Leviathan melvillei in honor of "Moby Dick" author Herman Melville.

The creature "was certainly a top predator, probably occupying the same ecological niche of the living killer whale," said Olivier Lambert, one of the study's lead authors and a paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Modern sperm whales may grow to about the same size as Leviathan melvillei, but they dive deep into the ocean to feed on squid using suction. The older whale, on the other hand, may have used its sharp teeth to rip into mid-size baleen whales.

"That's a provocative idea," said Ewan Fordyce, a paleontologist specializing in whales and dolphins at the University of Otago in New Zealand, who was not involved in the discovery.

"If that's how it fed, it fed very differently from the modern sperm whale," he said. "It opens our eyes about the diversity of feeding habits."

Lambert said the fossil, which his team uncovered during the last few hours of the final day of digging on a research field trip in 2008, gives scientists a better picture of the diversity of marine mammalian life millions of years ago.

But the reason for the whales' demise remains a mystery. Perhaps their great size became a detriment, he said.

"When you become bigger, it becomes difficult to attack smaller animals," he said.

amina.khan@latimes.com

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