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Livyatan Melvillei: The Super-Whale That Ate Megalodon Sharks?
By Heath Shive
Once upon a time, there were things in the ocean much scarier than plastic.
But oceans have never been safe. Even millions of years ago, the oceans had the Megalodon shark - a super-shark similar to a great white shark. Its bite radius could eat a whole cow in a single gulp.
Now what if I told you that there was whale – a super-whale – that used to eat Megalodon sharks for dinner?
Allow me to introduce Livyatan melvillei - a raptorial whale, as big as Megalodon, but with bigger teeth! L. melvillei lived in the same ancient oceans as Megalodon. The two super-predators must have clashed eventually. But who would win?
The Megaolodon and the Miocene Whales
C. megalodon was one of the largest predators of all time. Megalodon was an apex predator that ruled the oceans from 26-2 million years ago (Mya). Megalodon had a probable maximum length of 18 m (59 ft) – making it as large as a house with a length 3 times greater than the largest great white sharks alive today!
A predator of that magnitude would need large prey, so it’s no surprise that Megalodon ate baleen whales.
And there were plenty of baleen whales back then! During the Miocene epoch - 23-25 million years ago (Mya) - the planet was warmer and the oceans were larger. Back then, whales achieved their greatest biological diversity with about 20 different genera (compared to only 6 genera today).
But during the Pliocene, the world became colder. North and South America combined, redirecting the ocean currents. Ice ages and glacial expansion lowered sea levels. Some whale species adapted to the colder waters. Other whale species went extinct. Eventually, Megalodon died with them.
Megalodon wasn’t just losing its food supply. In fact, the Megalodon itself may have been food…for Livyatan melvillei.
The Livyatan melvillei
In November 2008, paleontologists discovered the first fossil remains of Livyatan melvillei in the Peruvian desert. The fossils consisted primarily of the head and jaws. The skull was about 3 meters (10 feet) long. The teeth were 36 cm (14 in) long!
The fossils have been dated to 9.9 – 8.9 Mya. The whale was classified into the Physeter family of whales, which includes the modern sperm whale. In fact, the research indicated that Livyatan was just as big as a sperm whale – reaching lengths of 13.5 to 17.5 m (44 to 57 ft) long. In other words, as big as the Megalodon!
They called their new fossil Leviathan (later changed to Livyatan), after the legendary biblical creature. The second part of the name is in honor of Herman Melville, the author of the epic “Moby Dick.”
Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) have narrow jaws with teeth only on the bottom, made for sucking up squids. But, L. melvillei had functional teeth in both of its jaws. Livyatan’s jaws were robust, and its temporal fossa – where the jaw muscles anchor on the side of the head - were considerably larger than in a sperm whale. In fact, Livyatan’s skull looks more like an orca’s skull than a sperm whale’s skull.
L. melvillei is one of the largest predators yet known, with whale experts using the phrase "the biggest tetrapod bite ever found" to explain their find.
In 2016, fossil enthusiast Murray Orr found a tooth over 30 cm (12 in) long in Beaumaris Bay, Australia! The tooth dates to around 5-6 Mya and looks remarkably like that of L. melvillei. That means Livyatan was around for millions of years and all around the world. Poor Megalodon couldn’t catch a break!
Livyatan vs Megalodon
Who would win in a fight? Both Livyatan and Megalodon had about the same maximum size. The Megalodon would have had twice as many teeth, but the Livyatan’s teeth would be twice as big!
The Livyatan would have certain advantages. If it was like a sperm whale, then the Livyatan cows and calves traveled in pods, and the bulls – though usually solitary – could have traveled in groups too. If Livyatan whales were like the modern raptorial orcas, then Livyatan could have hunted Megalodon as a pack. Even today, killer whales hunt great white sharks, primarily for their oil-rich livers.
Of course, this is all moot. Neither Megalodon nor Livyatan survived the Pliocene. For which, I am thankful. It’s bad enough the modern oceans have billions of tons of plastic trash. We don’t need anything scarier in the water too.
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Lambert, Olivier; Bianucci, Giovanni; Post, Klaas; de Muizon, Christian; Salas-Gismondi, Rodolfo; Urbina, Mario; Reumer, Jelle (1 July 2010). "The giant bite of a new raptorial sperm whale from the Miocene epoch of Peru". Nature. 466 (7302): 105–108.
Smith, Bridie (21 April 2016). "Move Over Moby Dick: Meet Melbourne's Own Mega Whale." The Sydney Morning Herald.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.