This Guy Might've Been the Heaviest Animal Earth's Seen

Meet the long-extinct Perucetus colossus
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 2, 2023 12:50 PM CDT
Move Over, Blue Whale: This Animal May Have You Beat
The site of origin of Perucetus colossus field excavation in the Ica desert, in Ica Province, Peru. An ancient whale might be the heaviest animal ever found. Scientists reported Aug. 2, 2023, that the creature could challenge the blue whale's title as the heaviest animal that lived on Earth.   (Giovanni Bianucci/Department of Earth Sciences, University of Pisa, via AP)

There could be a new contender for heaviest animal to ever live. While today's blue whale has long held the title, the AP reports that scientists have dug up fossils from an ancient giant that could tip the scales. Researchers described the new species—named Perucetus colossus, or "the colossal whale from Peru"—in the journal Nature on Wednesday. The bones were first discovered more than a decade ago by Mario Urbina from 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 in Peru that was once underwater and is known for its rich marine fossils.

The results: 13 vertebrae from the whale's backbone, four ribs, and a hip bone. The massive fossils, which are 39 million years old, "are unlike anything I've ever seen," said study author Alberto Collareta, a paleontologist at Italy's University of Pisa. Each vertebra weighs over 220 pounds, and its ribs measure nearly 5 feet long. After the excavations, the researchers used 3D scanners to study the surface of the bones and drilled into them to peek 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 somewhere between 94 and 375 tons. The biggest blue whales found have been within that range—at around 200 tons. Its body stretched to around 66 feet long. Blue whales can be longer—with some growing to more than 100 feet in length. This means the newly discovered whale was "possibly the heaviest animal ever," Collareta said, but "it was most likely not the longest animal ever." It weighs more in part because its bones are much denser and heavier than a blue whale's, Amson explained.

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Those super-dense bones suggest that the whale may have spent its time in shallow, coastal waters, the authors said. Other coastal dwellers, like manatees, have heavy bones to help them stay close to the seafloor. Without the skull, it's hard to know what the whale was eating to sustain such a huge body, Amson said. It's possible that P. colossus was scavenging for food along the seafloor, researchers said, or eating up tons of krill and other tiny sea creatures in the water. But "I wouldn't be surprised if this thing actually fed in a totally different way that we would never imagine," a paleontologist who was not involved in the research added.

(More discoveries stories.)

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