Deep in a desert in Peru palaeontologists were searching for a skull. Some years ago, teeth thought to belong to a new species of marine animal had been found, but they needed a head to identify it. Hunting in the richest area for ancient sea remains, luck eluded them until the very last day of their travel. Then they found…
Leviathan melvillei. Named after that most fearsome animal the white whale, likened to Leviathan in Herman Melville’s most excellent book Moby Dick. In the old Testament Leviathan was a sea demon, a guardian of the gates of hell. Other cultures thought a dragon or a crocodile, but in modern Hebrew the word means simply whale.
And what a whale is Leviathan.
With 30 cm long teeth it was a dangerous predator. It may have hunted medium-sized baleen whales, who have no teeth and live on plankton. It’s huge teeth would have inflicted deep bites, tearing the baleen whales into pieces. Leviathan lived some 12 million years ago, and looks similar to a modern day sperm whale.
One major difference between the fossil and modern sperm whales is Leviathan had teeth on both jaws. Modern sperm whales only have teeth on the lower jaw, and eat by sucking squid into their mouth. Killer whales are like the funsize version of Leviathan, with teeth on both jaws and violence towards seals. Watch the YouTube documentary to find out more.
They haven’t found the rest of the fossil, so they don’t know how large the whale was, but it was probably around the same size as the sperm whales of today. That’s really big! The largest animal that has ever lived is the blue whale that is still in the ocean now. There are theories that the blue whale is as big as things will ever get.
And so let us take a moment to think of mighty, mad Ahab. That crazy captain who lost his leg to a sperm whale. Wherever you are, Ahab, I be glad you never lived to see this day. The mighty Moby Dick who stole your sanity had but half the dental framework of legendary Leviathan.
Update: The name Leviathan was already taken (whoops!) so it has now been renamed Livyatan melvillei, Livyatan being a Hebrew name for large marine monsters.