Perhaps the heaviest animal that has ever lived is a colossal ancient whale recently discovered in Peru, scientists say.
Scientists have unearthed massive fossils of the new species – named Perucetus colossus, or “the colossal whale of Peru” – in the Ica Desert, a region of Peru that was once underwater for the past decade. The discovery was unveiled in a Nature journal published on Wednesday, August 2.
According to the paper, titled “Early Heavyweight Whale Pushes Boundaries of Vertebrate Morphology,” researchers calculated the ancient giant to weigh between 94 and 375 tonnes (85 and 340 metric tons). Its body spanned approximately 66 feet (20 meters) in length.
The colossus Perucetus was “probably the heaviest animal of all time,” said study author Eli Amson, a paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany, but “it wasn’t probably not the longest animal ever”.
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If confirmed, the Peruvian whale would take first place from the blue whale, the largest of which weighs in that range at around 200 tonnes (180 metric tons). The blue whale can also be longer, with some reaching over 30 meters in length.
“It’s just exciting to see such a giant animal that is so unlike anything we know of,” said Hans Thewissen, a paleontologist at Northeast Ohio Medical University who did not contribute to the research.
Mario Urbina of the University of San Marcos Natural History Museum in Lima discovered the bones over a decade ago and an international team spent years digging them up from the side of a steep rocky slope – known for its rich marine fossils – in the Peruvian desert.
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So far, paleontologists have found 13 vertebrae from the whale’s spine, four ribs and one hip bone. Each vertebra weighs over 220 pounds and its ribs are nearly 5 feet long.
The excavated fossils are 39 million years old and “unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said study author Alberto Collareta, a paleontologist at the Italian University of Pisa.
The researchers used 3D scanners to study the surface of the bones and drilled into them to peek inside.
They also used the partial skeleton to estimate the whale’s height and weight.
The new Peruvian whale probably weighs more because its bones are denser and heavier than those of a blue whale, Amson explained.
The bone density suggests the whale may have spent its time in shallow coastal waters, the authors said, because other coastal dwellers, such as manatees, have heavy bones.
This helps them stay close to the seabed, experts said.
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Amson said that without the skull, scientists can’t be sure what the whale ate to support its huge body.
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Its diet may have consisted of scavenging for food or eating tons of krill and other tiny sea creatures in the water.
Thewissen noted that he “wouldn’t be surprised if this thing actually fed in a totally different way than we ever imagined”.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.