10 Terrifying Extinct Cetaceans


Leviathan melvillei

The giant, ancient sperm whale Leviathan (or Livyatan) melvillei was named for "Moby Dick" author Herman Melville and the Biblical monster Leviathan -- although it likely was scarier than either literary creature. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The giant, ancient sperm whale Leviathan (or Livyatan) melvillei was named for "Moby Dick" author Herman Melville and the Biblical monster Leviathan -- although it likely was scarier than either literary creature. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Your modern sperm whale may seem to be a mighty beast. After all, Moby Dick was one of them, and he sank a whaling boat. Although Melville based his great novel on a true story, he fudged some facts to make his whale scarier. The truth is that sperm whales spend most of their time diving deep while on the hunt for cephalopods like squid and octopuses. And although they have some peglike teeth, they actually use suction to hold onto their prey.

But in 2010, researchers in Peru uncovered the remains of a gigantic sperm whale dating back 12 million years to the Miocene era. Measuring more than 50 feet (15 meters) in length, its head alone was nearly 10 feet (3 meters) long, and its powerful jaws were lined with 12-inch (30.4 centimeters) teeth. Its prey? Baleen whales. The paleontologists who found this monster named it for Herman Melville, which seems fitting. After all, as one of the largest known predators to have ever existed, Leviathan melvillei was the force of nature Melville wanted Moby Dick to be [source: Urbina].

Related Articles


  • Bianucci, Giovanni and Walter Landini. "Killer sperm whale: a new basal physeteroid (Mammalia, Cetacea) from the Late Miocene of Italy." Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 148.1 (2006): 103-131. (Feb. 4, 2015) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1096-3642.2006.00228.x/abstract
  • Climo, F. M. and A. N. Baker. "A new shark-toothed dolphin (Cetacea Squalodontidae) from the upper Oligocene of New Zealand." Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 2.1 (1972): 61-68. (Feb. 3, 2015) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03036758.1972.10423305#.VNEcQGTF9WQ
  • Fahlke, Julia M. "Bite marks revisited — evidence for middle-to-late Eocene Basilosaurus isis predation on Dorudon atrox (both Cetacea, Basilosauridae)." Palaeontologia Electronica 15.3 (2012): 32A. (Feb. 3, 2015) http://palaeo-electronica.org/content/pdfs/341.pdf
  • Fahlke, Julia M., et al. "Cranial asymmetry in Eocene archaeocete whales and the evolution of directional hearing in water." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108.35 (2011): 14545-14548. (Feb. 10, 2015) http://www.pnas.org/content/108/35/14545.short
  • Fitzgerald, Erich. "A bizarre new toothed mysticete (Cetacea) from Australia and the early evolution of baleen whales." Proceedings of The Royal Society. 2006. (Jan. 30, 2015) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1639514/pdf/rspb20063664.pdf
  • Fordyce, R. Ewan. "Shark-toothed dolphins (Family Squalodontidae)." University of Otago, Department of Geology. (Feb. 4, 2015) http://www.otago.ac.nz/geology/research/paleontology/squalodontidae.html
  • Gill, Victoria. "Ageing whales: Scars reveal social secrets." BBC News. Jan. 29, 2013. (Feb. 2, 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-30993208
  • Gingerich, Philip D. "New Whale from the Eocene of Pakistan and the Origin of Cetacean Swimming." Nature 368 (6474): 844-847. April 28, 1994. (Feb. 5, 2015) http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/62571/368844a0.pdf
  • Gingerich, Philip D. et al. "Origin of whales from early artiodactyls: Hands and feet of Eocene Protocetidae from Pakistan." Science 293.5538 (2001): 2239-2242. (Feb. 3, 2015) http://www.blc.arizona.edu/courses/schaffer/449/God in the Gaps/Early whale Hands and feet.pdf
  • Gingerich, Philip D. "The whales of Tethys." Natural History 103 (1994): 86-86. (Feb. 2, 2015) http://www-personal.umich.edu/~gingeric/PDFfiles/PDG272_WhalesTethys.pdf
  • Mackay, R. Stuart. "A Theory of the Spermaceti Organ in Sperm Whale Sound Production." NATO Advance Study Institutes Series. Volume 28, 1980, pp. 937-940. (Feb. 4, 2015) http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4684-7254-7_62
  • National Science Foundation. "Early Whales Gave Birth on Land." NSF Press Release. September 2013. (Feb. 2, 2015) http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=114086
  • Owen, James. "'Killer' Fossil Find May Rewrite Story of Whale Evolution." National Geographic News. Aug. 16, 2006. (Feb. 5, 2015) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/08/060816-whale-fossil.html
  • Polly, Paul David. "Pakicetus." Encyclopedia Britannica. Aug. 28, 2014. (Feb. 2, 2015) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1700783/Pakicetus
  • Thewissen, Johannes G.M. et al. "Fossil evidence for the origin of aquatic locomotion in archaeocete whales." Science 263.5144 (1994): 210-212. (Feb. 5, 2015) http://www.sciencemag.org/content/263/5144/210.short
  • Thewissen, Johannes G.M. et al. "Skeletons of terrestrial cetaceans and the relationship of whales to artiodactyls." Nature 413.6853 (2001): 277-281. http://www.faculty.virginia.edu/bio202/202-2002/Lectures 20202/thesissen et al 2001.pdf
  • Turvey, Samuel T. et al. "First human-caused extinction of a cetacean species?" Biology Letters. The Royal Society Publishing. Oct. 22, 2007. (Jan. 29, 2015) http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/5/537
  • University of California Museum of Paleontology. "Introduction to the Cetacea." UCMP Berkeley.edu. Feb. 2, 2001. (Jan. 28, 2015) http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/mammal/cetacea/cetacean.html
  • Urbina, Mario and Jelle Reumer. "The giant bite of a new raptorial sperm whale from the Miocene epoch of Peru." Nature. July 2010. (Feb. 3, 2015) http://scholar.googleusercontent.com/scholar?q=cache:fv5u6bl5244J:scholar.google.com
  • Zimmer, Carl. "At the Water's Edge: Macroevolution and the Transformation of Life." Free Press. 1998. (Feb. 2, 2015) http://books.google.ca/books/about/At_the_Water_s_Edge.html?id=ZygUAQAAIAAJ


Prehistoric Predator Rediscovered in Museum Drawer

Prehistoric Predator Rediscovered in Museum Drawer

The skeletal remains of Simbakubwa kutokaafrika were recently rediscovered in a drawer. HowStuffWorks takes a look at this huge predator.