Nature recently published findings from the 2008 fossil discovery of an extinct sperm whale named after Moby Dick. The prehistoric sperm whale, of which researchers discovered 75% of a skull dating to approximately 12-13 million years ago, has been given the taxonomic name of Leviathan melvillei.
Estimated to have grown anywhere from 13.5 to 17.5 meters (44.3 to 57.4 feet), L. melvillei was not larger than modern-day sperm whales. What was remarkable about these whales were the size of their teeth. The largest teeth on theses whales were more than 36 centimeters (14.2inches) long!! That is nearly 10 centimeters longer than the largest recorded sperm whale tooth.
Unlike sperm whales which use suction to catch deep sea squid, it is suggested that this Leviathan fed more like a killer whale tearing off flesh from (no not penguins and fish, but infact) mid-sized baleen whales.
Besides the remarkable teeth on these ancient sperm whales, the discovery is leading scientists to question the original function of sperm whales’ characteristically large foreheads which house a ‘spermaceti organ.’ It has long been assumed that these organs, which are filled with reserviors of oil and wax, aid the sperm whale in its deep dives for food. The Leviathan, however, would not likely have needed to dive suggesting a different reason for the evolution of spermaceti organs. Maybe the foreheads were used for echolocation, acoustic display or ramming rivals competing for mates.
From such fossil records, it is becoming apparent that modern day cetaceans (large marine mammals) only reflect a sliver of the previous diversity found among marine mammals. Scientists have postulated that the Leviathan may have gone extinct due to climactic changes to the oceans reducing their food source. Top predators are often the first species in an ecosystem to disappear. We are seeing the same trend with sharks today, compounded by continued human hunting and killing. Hopefully, we can learn a lesson from Moby’s prehistoric cousin.
View the full scholarly journal here.