Move over, blue whale. There is a new contender for the heaviest animal in Earth’s history.
Scientists in Peru have announced a new candidate for the heaviest animal in Earth’s history.
While today’s blue whale has long held the title, researchers said Wednesday that fossils of a creature unearthed in Peru called Perucetus colossus could tip the scales.
The early whale, which lived about 38-40 million years ago during the Eocene epoch, was built somewhat like a manatee and was probably about 20 meters (66 feet) long.
It weighed up to 340 tons, a mass that would exceed any other known animal including today’s blue whale and the largest dinosaurs.
Its scientific name means “colossal Peruvian whale”.
“The main feature of this animal is certainly the extreme weight, which suggests that evolution can generate organisms that have characteristics that go beyond our imagination,” said paleontologist Giovanni Bianucci of the University of Pisa in Italy, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature.
The minimum mass estimate for Perucetus was 85 tons, with an average estimate of 180 tons. The largest known blue whale weighed about 190 tons, although it was longer than Perucetus at 33.5 meters (110 ft).
Argentinosaurus, a long-necked, four-legged herbivore that lived about 95 million years ago in Argentina and was ranked in a study published in May as the most massive dinosaur, was estimated at about 76 tons.
The partial skeleton of Perucetus was discovered more than ten years ago by Mario Urbina of the University of San Marcos’ Natural History Museum in Lima.
An international team spent years digging them out from the side of a steep, rocky slope in the Ica desert, a region of Peru that was once underwater and is known for its rich marine fossils. The results: 13 vertebrae from the whale’s spine, four ribs and a hip bone.
The bones, unusually voluminous, were extremely dense and compact.
These super-dense bones suggest the whale may have spent its time in shallow coastal waters, the authors said. Other coastal inhabitants, such as manatees and dugongs, known as sirenians, have heavy bones to help them stay close to the ocean floor.
No skull or dental remains were found, making the interpretation of its diet and lifestyle more difficult.
The researchers suspect that Perucetus lived like sirens – not an active predator, but an animal that fed near the bottom of shallow coastal waters.
“Because of its heavy skeleton and most likely its very bulky body, this animal was certainly a slow swimmer. This appears to me, at this stage of our knowledge, as a kind of peaceful giant, rather like a super-sized manatee. It must have would have been a very impressive animal, but perhaps not so terrifying,” said palaeontologist Olivier Lambert of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.
Skeletal features indicate that Perucetus was related to Basilosaurus, another early whale that was similar in length but less massive.
However, Basilosaurus was an active predator with a streamlined body, powerful jaws and large teeth.
“It’s just exciting to see such a huge animal that’s so different from anything we know,” said Hans Thewissen, a paleontologist at Northeast Ohio Medical University who had no role in the research.