Field of Science

Palaeontology and Myth: The terrible Leviathan

Sometimes palaeontologists when naming a new species got inspired by myths and legends told in ancient and modern stories.

When the first fossils were found in the desert of Peru, researchers thought they had discovered the tusks of an elephant, but the remains, fragments of the skull and teeth, are parts of a 14m long whale of the Miocene (ca.12-13Ma). The fossils were discovered in 2008 in the desert of Pisco-Ica, southern Peru, and are now described and published in an article in the journal Nature.
Among the remains the jaw with 29 teeth is the most remarkable feature, single teeth reach a length up to 36cm and a width of 12cm, the largest whale teeth known so far.

Fig.1. Schematic representation of the recovered fossils, skull in dorsal (a) and ventral view (b) mandible in dorsal view (c) side view of the jaw attached to the skull (d) dentition of L. melvillei, h+i modern sperm whale teeth, figure from LAMBERT et al. 2010

The new species, which also represents a new genus, has been provisionally named Leviathan melvillei, the genus name is inspired by the story of the mythological sea monster in the Bible and the species is a tribute to author Herman Melville, known for his novel on Moby-Dick.
According to some online remarks however the name Leviathan is already occupied by a kind of North American proboscid (KOCH 1841).
According to the published research the animal is comparable in his overall anatomy to the modern sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), the largest existing teeth-whale, the impressive teeth suggest that the new species was a specialized to hunt large prey. Modern sperm whales have relatively small teeth, since they prefer to feed, by “sucking” them in, on large cephalopods.
Considering the size of the jaw and the teeth of L. melvillei however, the researchers speculate that it hunted smaller whales, a prey worth of a hungry Leviathan.

Fig.2. Reconstruction of Leviathan melvillei (14m long) in the act of preying on a smaller mysticet (7 to 8m long), because of the fragmentary remains of the skull the appearance is speculative, and based mainly on the alleged relationship with the modern sperm whale, figure from NatureNews.


LAMBERT, O.; BIANUCCI, G.; POST, K.; DE MUIZON, C.; SALA-GISMONDI, R.; URBINA, M. & REUMER, J. (2010): The giant bite of a new raptorial sperm whale from the Miocene epoch of Peru. Nature Vol. 466: 105-108 doi:10.1038/nature09067

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