National Geographic

Behold Livyatan: the sperm whale that killed other whales

The skull of Leviathan was big enough to swallow a human whole and had the largest bite of any tetrapod. The short, wide snout allowed it to bite more strongly with its front teeth, which were angled forwards to give a better grip on prey with curved bodies. (Photo by G. Bianucci)

Update: This animal has been renamed! It used to be Leviathan until someone pointed out to the authors that the name had already been taken!

In today’s oceans, killer whales hunt other species of whales, working in packs to take down their much bigger prey. But living whales have it easy. Those that swam off the coast of Peru around 12 million years ago were hunted by a far bigger predator, a recently discovered animal with a very appropriate name: Livyatan.

Livyatan melvillei, named after the Biblical sea monster and the author of Moby Dick, was a giant sperm whale that has just been discovered by Belgian scientist Olivier Lambert. At between 13.5 and 18.5 metres in length, it was no bigger than the modern sperm whale, but it was clearly far more formidable.

Leviathan’s skull was clearly more robust and toothy than that of today’s sperm whale, which feeds through suction. Like a modern killer whale, it would have grabbed its prey with a powerful bite, but one that was at least three times bigger. Its temporal fossa – the shallow depression on the side of the skull – was enormous and could old huge jaw-closing muscles. (Photo by O.Lambert)

Today’s sperm whale has no functional teeth in its upper jaw and only small ones in its lower jaw (which are mostly used in fights). It feeds through suction, relying on a rush of water to carry its prey into its open mouth. But Livyatan’s mouth was full of huge teeth, the largest of which were a foot long and around 4 inches wide.   This was no suction feeder! Livyatan clearly grabbed its prey with a powerful bite, inflicting deep wounds and tearing off flesh as killer whales do, but with a skull three times bigger.

Leviathan’s teeth (A-C) could grow up to a foot long and were around 4 inches wide. Similarly sized teeth had been found as early as 1877, providing tantalising hints of a giant, predatory sperm whale. But the skull that matched those teeth has only just been found. (Photo by G. Bianucci, O.Lambert, P.Loubry)

Livyatan was at the very top of the food chain and it must have needed a lot of food. While modern sperm whales mainly eat squid, Lambert thinks that Livyatan used its fearsome teeth to kill its own kind – the giant baleen whales. At the same point in prehistory, baleen whales started becoming much bigger and they were certainly the most common large animals in the area that Leviathan lived in. Lambert thinks that the giant predator evolved to take advantage of this rich source of energy. He says, “We think that medium-size baleen whales, rich in fat, would have been very convenient prey for Livyatan .”

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the biggest shark in history – the mighty Megalodon – also appeared at the same time in the same part of the world. It too was thought to have hunted whales and many of its teeth have also been found at Cerro Colorado. For the moment, it’s hard to say if the two predators were direct competitors, since they may have swum in different parts of the Peruvian seas. Lambert speculates that the adults of either species could have eaten the young of the other but there’s no evidence for this yet.

In the last few years, other smaller prehistoric sperm whales have been found in Peru and Italy. Their powerful teeth told us that these predators bit their prey in the manner of killer whales. The teeth were generally quite small but, as early as 1877, fossil hunters have found much larger teeth that looked very much like those of a sperm whale. The teeth provided tantalising hints of a much bigger animal but they were never accompanied by an actual skull. Their owner remained an enigma.

Lambert set out to find that skull in 2006, leading several expeditions into Peru’s Pisco-Ica desert. The digs weren’t fruitful but the team’s luck took a turn for the amazing at the very end.  “In November 2008, on the last day of the field trip, my Dutch colleague Klaas Post discovered a very large cetacean skull,” says Lambert. “Usually large skulls belong to baleen whales, but Klaas immediately noted enormous teeth, both on the upper and lower jaw.” They had found Livyatan.

The skull is beautifully adapted to capture large, powerful prey. The snout was short and wide, allowing it to bite more strongly with its front teeth and resist the struggles of its prey. Its temporal fossa – the shallow depression on the side of the skull – was enormous and could old huge jaw-closing muscles. The bite would have been the largest of any tetrapod (the animal group that includes mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians). And the teeth were deeply embedded in the jaw bones for each support, and interlocked to give the animal a shearing, meat-carving bite. They were also angled forwards, giving Livyatan a better grip on prey with curved bodies.

The modern sperm whale is very different to its ancient cousin. It grow to about the same size as Leviathan but it hunts squid rather than other whales. It has no functional teeth in its upper jaw and only small ones in its lower jaw that are probably used for fighting. (Image by NOAA)

The skull also creates a mystery. Sperm whales have a unique organ in their heads called the spermaceti, and Livyatan’s was particularly large. The spermaceti is full of a waxy substance that was originally thought to be the animal’s sperm (hence the name). Its purpose isn’t clear although there are many theories, all of which must now be considered in the light of Livyatan’s very different lifestyle.

The sperm whale might use it to control its buoyancy during a dive by pumping in cold water, solidifying the wax and increasing the density of its head. At the depths, the energy expended during a hunt heats up the wax and melts it again. But Livyatan probably didn’t hunt for squid and probably wasn’t a deep-diver like the modern sperm whale. In light of this, other explanations become more intriguing. The case containing the spermaceti could be used as a battering ram during fights. It could also boost the sperm whale’s echolocation, allowing it to stun its prey with sound, or woo females (the male’s organ is particularly big).

Reference: Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature09067

More on ancient whales:

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Livyatan

There are 36 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Crow
    June 30, 2010

    HA! So I managed to toon Leviathan even before his official discovery. I’m psychic!

    http://www.nicky510.com/comic/gimme-some-speed/

  2. Zach Miller
    June 30, 2010

    Gotta admit, Ed, when I first saw this post, I thought it was a joke.

    Holy crap.

  3. brooks
    June 30, 2010

    OMG, a giant sperm whale– that is AWESOME!!!

  4. Colin Smith
    June 30, 2010

    Anyone else think of The Bloop immediately when reading this story?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloop

  5. Crow
    June 30, 2010

    The only thing I’d have done differently in the illustration is in regard to the relative sizes. The prey item is depicted very “blue whaleish” but is actually more along narwhale dimensions (going by the size of our toothy predator). Perhaps the illustrator meant for it to be a very immature specimen but I’d still have gone with an adult Leviathan attacking an adult baleen whale.

  6. Nemesis
    June 30, 2010

    @#5

    Any more ideas for the presentation of the article?

  7. Walter S. Andriuzzi
    June 30, 2010

    And now my childish imagination inevitably wonders who was strongest, the megalodon or this leviathan °_°
    Megalodon the shark, not the bivalve of course! That’s why I think you shouldn’t have written it in capitals Ed, it’s not a gender name
    Oh, and I so love Melville’s Moby Dick, so kudos to whoever came up with melvillei!
    By the way, from the drawings it seems its skull is more similar to the orca’s one than to the sperm whale – you are what you eat, after all (what a stupid way to speak of convergent evolution, I know)

  8. Nathan Myers
    June 30, 2010

    As Zach says, holy crap. Wait, though, till we find the thing that ate these babies.

    One thing bugs me: “its own kind“… Does that mean that humans, in eating cows, are eating their own kind? Both mammals, mind. Or would that only apply to humans eating monkeys — as is very common in Africa?

    And, wouldn’t you think it would kill by ramming, and then use the teeth just for dismemberment?

  9. Ed Yong
    June 30, 2010

    @5 Crow – Yeah I thought that. There’s another version of that image with a diver silhouette for comparison, and the prey animal does look fairly medium-sized for a baleen whale.

    @8 Nathan – Well now that you’ve got me thinking about it, I guess I mean order-level similarity, so yes, humans/monkeys would count.

  10. Kyle
    June 30, 2010

    I am hating how articles on the AP wire and BBC refer to this critter as a “giant sperm whale” especially when it is/was probably smaller. Gah!

  11. Crow
    June 30, 2010

    @8 – I had the exact same thought. There’s a pretty large diversity amongst the whales and I rather doubt any particular species would view another as “their kind.” Although, given what humans are doing to all the whales, I suppose they’d happily group themselves all together as “a single kind” if it’d help get them some breathing/living room.

    @9 Hmm. Maybe I need to revisit my size comparisons of cetaceans. And, as an aside, those are some wickedly large/hefty teeth on that thing. Looks less slice and dice and more crush and tear. If Ahab had been up against one of those he’d have had some problems.

  12. Ed Yong
    June 30, 2010

    So what do people think about the cool new gallery (now at the top, replacing the static pictures)? It’s a new feature for Discover blogs and I love it. Let me know if you encounter any bugs (I’m sure there’ll be a few.

  13. Ed Yong
    June 30, 2010

    Also: Giant Whale Vs. Killer Shark. Hollywood, you know what to do.

  14. Michael P. Taylor
    June 30, 2010

    It seems that the new genus name Leviathan Lambert et al. 2010 is preoccupied by Leviathan Koch 1843. For details, see
    http://svpow.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/is-the-new-miocen-sperm-whale-leviathan-validly-named/

  15. Juicyheart
    June 30, 2010

    Could spermaceti aid in passive echolocation?

  16. Crow
    June 30, 2010

    @12 – I like it. I didn’t see it at first (was it added after posting) and it adds to the post.

  17. Jaime A. Headden
    June 30, 2010

    Ed, it’s looking like there’s some taxonomic wonkiness going on here: Mike Taylor of SV-POW! ran the name Leviathan through the Nomenclator Zoologicus, and it seems the name is preoccupied.

  18. Old Rockin’ Dave
    July 1, 2010

    If they were at the apex of the food chain and their likely prey did not become extinct, what does anyone think happened to them?

  19. Eleanor
    July 1, 2010

    @13 I did wonder if this could be the first paper to have a movie tie-in, wiht the strap line:
    “Based on the most highly cited paper of 2010…”

  20. southlakesmom
    July 1, 2010

    Ed – @12

    I get a note at the top of the entry telling me my browser doesn’t support the gallery, yet I’m using Google Chrome. And, I have no trouble using the arrows on the sides to shift between the “big” picture changing…so is the note inaccurate or is there something really “whiz-bang” that I’m missing?

    Before I e-mail the webmaster, I want to make sure there’s really a ‘problem’…

  21. Crow
    July 1, 2010

    @12 – Ed, there seems to be a problem with your “contact me” email. I’ve tried twice and gotten a “delayed” response both times.

  22. Julie
    July 1, 2010

    This post was so awesome! I loved the new gallery feature

    And ‘thats what she said’ to the last 6 words of the post..

  23. Ed Yong
    July 1, 2010

    I’ve added a new photo to the gallery by the way…

  24. Yvonne
    July 1, 2010

    I’m struck by what appears to be convergent evolution in action. Modern sperm whales hunt by suction, much like baleen whales (as opposed to biting, obviously the filtering action of the baleen offers different menu options than the ability to chew). So several sperm whale predecessors bit their prey like smaller orcas, but modern sperm whales use suction. I’m wondering if this feeding strategy is more effecient for larger organisms.

  25. Ed Yong
    July 1, 2010

    @14 – I asked Lambert about the validity of the name Leviathan. He says:

    Concerning the validity of the name Leviathan, we knew about the Koch paper, and we are now checking this problem with our local mastodont taxonomy specialist. Hope to have more info on this point very soon.

  26. Jason
    July 2, 2010

    I think the illustration is a little misleading.

  27. Ed Yong
    July 2, 2010

    @26 Jason – Better?

  28. Crow
    July 2, 2010

    @27 Ed – What was altered?

  29. NB
    July 4, 2010

    reffering to post 18

    it probably mutated into a modern whale

  30. Captain Ahab
    July 5, 2010

    SPLIT YOUR LUNGS WITH BLOOD AND THUNDER
    WHEN YOU SEE THE WHITE WHALE
    BREAK YOUR BACKS AND CRACK YOUR OARS MEN
    IF YOU WISH TO PREVAIL
    THIS IVORY LEG IS WHAT PROPELS ME
    HARPOONS THRUST IN THE SKY
    AIM DIRECTLY FOR HIS CROOKED BROW
    AND LOOK HIM STRAIGHT IN THE EYE

  31. Captain Skellett
    July 5, 2010

    hehehe, last line “the male’s organ is particularly big.” Missed it on the first reading! Fascinating article, thanks for posting!

  32. NB
    July 9, 2010

    nice…

  33. peter
    September 23, 2010

    leviethin teeth may hold a pertal for a much bigger preitor far bigger than 18 meters lipluridon is estimted to grow to 25 meters and teeth estimted 12 inshis but leviethin teeth that
    have bim found are 14 inchis so i wald 100 feet .

  34. amphiox
    April 15, 2011

    lipluridon is estimted to grow to 25 meters

    That is now generally believed to be an inaccurate overestimation. Liopleurodon was big, but probably not that big.

    If they were at the apex of the food chain and their likely prey did not become extinct, what does anyone think happened to them?

    Maybe they were ultimately outcompeted by Megalodon? (Or perhaps later by Orcas when they evolved?) Or something about the onset of the ice ages changed the ocean ecosystem in a way that disfavored them? Or their baleen whale prey evolved in a manner that somehow made them harder to hunt (perhaps increased intelligence or more effective anti-predator group behaviors?)

    Much may depend on precisely when they became extinct. Are there enough fossils yet to put a date on this?

  35. Eyes
    June 28, 2011

    repercussions. Retirees and college students are also very common candidates. A retired nurse may find enjoyment and extra income from a temporary medical staffing

  36. Katherine
    January 1, 2012

    I believe the top predator are the humans :S

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