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Friday, July 9, 2010

The real Moby Dick, an ancient cannibal

When a group of palaeontologists stumbled on a few large bones in a desert in Peru, they thought they were elephant tusks.

But it turned out the bones, some the size of a human shin bone, were teeth.

Further excavation revealed an almost complete three-metre-long skull and mandible, or lower jaw, that belonged to the mammoth mouth of a newly found but extinct species of sperm whale.

European researchers discovered the fossils, believed to be about 13 million years old, in the Pisco-Ica Desert in southern Peru while on an expedition in 2008.

The whale, nicknamed Moby Dick, was between 13 and 18 metres long and lived during the Miocene epoch - when sea levels could have been more than 50 metres higher than today.

The extinct species, dubbed Leviathan melvillei after Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, were raptorial feeders which caught their prey individually.

Their bite, from more than 30 teeth, some more than 10 centimetres wide, could be the biggest of any animal that has swum or roamed the planet.

With teeth so big, the whale probably wasn't a gentle giant of the ocean. It is quite possible their main source of food was other cetaceans, such as baleen whales, said the researchers, whose findings were published in the journal Nature.

"This sperm whale could firmly hold large prey with its interlocking teeth, inflict deep wounds and tear large pieces from the body of the victim," the researchers said.

Leviathan melvillei differ from modern-day sperm whales which, despite being one of the world's largest predators, feed mainly on squid. Modern sperm whales, which have small teeth in their lower jaw and are almost toothless in their upper jaw, use a suction technique to catch their dinner.

Scientists believe this ancient species of sperm whale died out as a result of the global cooling at the end of the Neogene period, less than 5 million years ago.

The fossil bones will be displayed in the Museo de Historia Natural in Lima.

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