RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Rarely do scientists get to publish a research paper that begins with the words the giant bite. Today, fossil hunters from Europe are doing just that. They've discovered one of the biggest predators that ever lived - a whale, one that devoured other whales and probably anything else it had an appetite for. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on the Leviathan.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Leviathan melvillei, to be exact.�Leviathan means sea monster, and melvillei refers, of course, to Herman Melville, who wrote the greatest of whale stories,�"Moby Dick."�Among those who've read that book is paleontologist Olivier Lambert.
Mr. OLIVIER LAMBERT (Paleontologist): Yeah, several times. I love the book, so it was the reason why we selected that species name.
JOYCE: Lambert is with the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences in Belgium. He's a modern-day Ahab, though what he's after are the whitened bones of extinct whales. Two years ago, in a Peruvian desert, his team found some from a sperm whale that lived and died some 12 to 13 million years ago, when the desert was underwater.
But this wasn't the kind of gentle giant we know nowadays. Our sperm whales have tiny teeth and feed by sucking squid into their capacious mouths. Most other whales don't have teeth at all and filter-feed on plankton or shrimplike krill.
But Leviathan had an astonishing set of choppers.
Mr. LAMBERT: These are probably the largest teeth that I have ever seen. The maximum length of some of the teeth is 36 centimeters.
JOYCE: That would be about 15 inches long - and four to five inches wide at the base.
Mr. LAMBERT: It looks like an elephant tusk. It's really big.
JOYCE: The mouth was about nine feet long and up to seven feet wide. The upper and lower teeth interlocked when the mouth closed, good for securing prey and ripping through flesh. And the skull suggests very powerful biting muscles, thus the giant bite in the title of the research paper, which appears in the journal�Nature.
At over 50 feet in length, the Leviathan probably ate anything it wanted to, but other whales - the toothless kind - were probably its main prey.
Lambert says scientists had found big teeth like these before and suspected a toothy, predatory whale once existed, but skeletal evidence had been elusive.
Mr. LAMBERT: We were just amazed by this specimen. It was a very exciting moment, because we knew about the existence of very large sperm whales, but no skeleton had been found.
JOYCE: Now that it has - at least the jaws and teeth - it's clearer than ever that the ocean 13 million years ago was a hopping place, and Leviathan would not have been alone.
Mr. LAMBERT: You have the ancestors of the killer whales. And we could imagine that there was some competition between the two groups.
JOYCE: Not to mention Megalodon, the biggest shark that ever lived.
Leviathan would have been the heavyweight in this crowd of top predators. No doubt, he'll soon be terrorizing moviegoers at your local multiplex cinema. Steven Spielberg, are you on this?
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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