The giant bite of a new raptorial sperm whale from the Miocene epoch of Peru

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 26 August 2010

Abstract

The modern giant sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus, one of the largest known predators, preys upon cephalopods at great depths1,2. Lacking a functional upper dentition, it relies on suction for catching its prey3; in contrast, several smaller Miocene sperm whales (Physeteroidea) have been interpreted as raptorial (versus suction) feeders4,5, analogous to the modern killer whale Orcinus orca. Whereas very large physeteroid teeth have been discovered in various Miocene localities, associated diagnostic cranial remains have not been found so far6,7,8. Here we report the discovery of a new giant sperm whale from the Middle Miocene of Peru (approximately 12–13 million years ago), Leviathan melvillei, described on the basis of a skull with teeth and mandible. With a 3-m-long head, very large upper and lower teeth (maximum diameter and length of 12 cm and greater than 36 cm, respectively), robust jaws and a temporal fossa considerably larger than in Physeter, this stem physeteroid represents one of the largest raptorial predators and, to our knowledge, the biggest tetrapod bite ever found. The appearance of gigantic raptorial sperm whales in the fossil record coincides with a phase of diversification and size-range increase of the baleen-bearing mysticetes in the Miocene. We propose that Leviathan fed mostly on high-energy content medium-size baleen whales. As a top predator, together with the contemporaneous giant shark Carcharocles megalodon, it probably had a profound impact on the structuring of Miocene marine communities. The development of a vast supracranial basin in Leviathan, extending on the rostrum as in Physeter, might indicate the presence of an enlarged spermaceti organ in the former that is not associated with deep diving or obligatory suction feeding.

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Figure 1: Skull, mandible and tooth morphology of the holotype of L. melvillei MUSM 1676.
Figure 2: Phylogeny of physeteroids illustrating the relationships of Leviathan with other stem physeteroids, physeterids and kogiids.
Figure 3: Comparison of the outline of the skull and mandible of Leviathan with modern giant sperm whale Physeter and killer whale Orcinus.
Figure 4: Evolution of the diversity and size of mysticetes from Oligocene to present.

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Acknowledgements

We thank W. Aguirre, A. Altamirano, E. Díaz, A. Martínez and N. Valencia for assistance during fieldwork and preparation of the specimen; C. Letenneur for the reconstruction of Leviathan; P. Loubry for the photo of the tooth of Orcinus; D. J. Bohaska, G. Lenglet, J. G. Mead, C. Potter, H. van der Es, R. van Zelst and A. Varola for access to collections; M. D. Uhen for his compilation of cetacean data in The Paleobiology Database, and the Board of the Natuurhistorisch Museum Rotterdam Foundation for financial support of our research on fossil cetaceans in Peru. The work of O.L. at IRSNB was funded by the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office.

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O.L., G.B., K.P., M.U., R.S.-G. and J.R. took part in the fieldwork. R.S.-G. and M.U. organized the rescue and preparation of the specimen. O.L., G.B., K.P., C.M. and J.R. carried out the interpretation of the specimen. O.L. and G.B. undertook the phylogenetic analysis. G.B., O.L., K.P. and R.S.-G. collected the data on the size of mysticetes. G.B. undertook the statistical analyses and prepared the illustrations. O.L. wrote the paper. G.B., K.P., C.M. and J.R. discussed the results and commented on the manuscript at all stages.

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Correspondence to Olivier Lambert or Giovanni Bianucci.

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Lambert, O., Bianucci, G., Post, K. et al. The giant bite of a new raptorial sperm whale from the Miocene epoch of Peru. Nature 466, 105–108 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09067

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