NEW YORK (AP) — There may be a new contender for the heaviest animal that ever lived. While today’s blue whale has long held the title, scientists have unearthed fossils of an ancient giant that could tip the scales.
The researchers described the new species, named Perucetus colossus, or “the colossal whale of Peru”: in Nature magazine On Wednesday. Each vertebra weighs more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds), and its ribs are almost 1.4 meters (5 feet) long.
“It’s exciting to see such a giant animal that is so different from anything we know of,” said Hans Thewissen, a paleontologist at Northeastern Ohio Medical University who was not involved in the research.
The bones were first discovered more than a decade ago by Mario Urbina of the Natural History Museum of the University of San Marcos in Lima. An international team spent years excavating them from the side of a steep, rocky slope in the Ica desert, a once-underwater region in Peru known for its rich marine fossils. The results: 13 vertebrae from the whale’s spine, four ribs and one hip bone.
The huge fossils, which are 39 million years old, “are unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said study author Alberto Collareta, a paleontologist at the University of Pisa in Italy.
After the excavations, the researchers used 3D scanners to study the surface of the bones and drilled holes into them to peer inside. They used the huge but incomplete skeleton to estimate the whale’s size and weight, using modern marine mammals for comparison, said study author Eli Amson, a paleontologist at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany.
They calculated that the ancient giant weighed between 94 and 375 tons (85 and 340 metric tons). The largest blue whales found have been within that range, around 200 tons (180 metric tons).
Its body stretched to about 66 feet (20 meters) long. Blue whales can be longer, with some reaching over 100 feet (30 meters) in length.
This means the newly discovered whale was “possibly the heaviest animal ever,” Collareta said, but “most likely not the longest animal ever.”
It weighs more in part because its bones are much denser and heavier than those of a blue whale, Amson explained.
Those super-dense bones suggest the whale may have spent its time in shallow coastal waters, the authors said. Other coastal inhabitants, such as manatees, have heavy bones that help them stay close to the seafloor.
Without the skull, it’s hard to tell what the whale was eating to support such a large body, Amson said.
P. colossus may have been searching for food on the seafloor, the researchers said, or eating tons of krill and other small marine creatures in the water.
But “I wouldn’t be surprised if this thing actually fed itself in a totally different way that we would never imagine,” Thewissen added.
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