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Scientists Discover Fossils of the Heaviest Animal on Planet Earth

Fossils of the heaviest animal, Perucetus colossus, were unearthed in Peru and compared with the size of a blue whale.
Fossils of the heaviest animal, Perucetus colossus, were unearthed in Peru and compared with the size of a blue whale. Credit: Lundur39 / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A remarkable discovery has been made by scientists, uncovering a potential contender for the fossils of the heaviest animal known on Earth. This extraordinary creature is an ancient whale that no longer exists today, and it is estimated to have weighed nearly 200 tonnes, which is quite astounding!

According to experts, only a few of the largest blue whales might have come close to matching the sheer weight of this ancient whale. The remains of this colossal creature were found in the southern desert of Peru, leading to its name, Perucetus colossus.

By analyzing the sediments surrounding the fossilized bones, scientists have determined that this majestic whale roamed the Earth approximately 39 million years ago, making it an incredibly ancient and significant find.

Interestingly, these fossils were actually discovered 13 years ago. Still, due to their massive size and unique characteristics, it took an additional three years to transport them to Lima, the capital of Peru.

Since then, they have been under thorough examination and study by a team led by the esteemed paleontologist Dr. Mario Urbina, alongside the contributions of Dr. Eli Amson.

Structure of the bones discovered

The scientists managed to recover eighteen bones from the remains of the marine mammal, an early type of whale known as a basilosaurid. Among these bones were 13 vertebrae, four ribs, and a portion of a hip bone.

Although the bones were fragmented and quite ancient, the experts were still able to gain significant insights into the creature’s characteristics.

Notably, they observed that the bones had a remarkably high density due to a process called osteosclerosis, where inner cavities were filled. Additionally, the bones were unusually large, featuring extra growth on their outer surfaces, a phenomenon known as pachyostosis.

Interestingly, the team clarified that these features were not signs of any disease or ailment. Instead, they were adaptations that enabled the large whale to control its buoyancy effectively while searching for food in shallow waters.

Similar bone features are observed in present-day manatees, also known as sea cows, which inhabit coastal areas in specific regions of the world.

Dr. Rebecca Bennion, a co-worker from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, expressed her astonishment, “Each vertebra weighs over 100kg, which is just completely mind-blowing.”

“It took several men to shift them out into the middle of the floor in the museum for me to do some 3D scanning. The team that drilled into the centre of some of these vertebrae to work out the bone density – the bone was so dense, it broke the drill on the first attempt.”

Reconstruction of the body shape

When scientists are faced with the challenge of reconstructing the body shape and mass of an extinct species, they rely on models and knowledge from comparable living creatures’ biology.

In the case of Perucetus, it is estimated that its length would have been around 17 to 20 meters, which is not extraordinary for such a creature. However, the sheer bone mass alone would have ranged from 5.3 to 7.6 tonnes.

Once you factor in the organs, muscles, and blubber, the estimated weight could vary significantly, ranging anywhere from 85 tonnes to an astonishing 320 tonnes, depending on the assumptions made in the calculations.

Dr. Amson, who serves as a curator at Germany’s State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart, considers a median estimate of 180 tonnes for Perucetus, the newly discovered ancient whale.

Interestingly, the largest blue whales ever recorded during the era of commercial exploitation were also in this size range as fossils of the heaviest animal. Dr. Amson compared Perucetus to the blue whale, saying that they are in the same ballpark in terms of weight.

He further explained that the estimated weight of 180 tonnes is not indicative of our individual specimen being exceptionally large or small.

Instead, it likely represents the typical size within the general population of these ancient whales. It’s essential to note that the median estimate of 180 tonnes is already at the upper end of what blue whales can typically weigh.

Blue whale as a point of comparison

As part of their investigations, the research team used a blue whale as a point of comparison, and it’s likely to be familiar to those who have visited the Natural History Museum in London.

Affectionately known as “Hope,” this blue whale’s skeleton was a prominent exhibit at the museum, hanging gracefully from the ceiling in the main hall since 2017.

Before being showcased, the skeleton underwent meticulous scanning and detailed description, turning it into a valuable data resource for scientists worldwide.

This comprehensive data on the skeleton of “Hope” has proven to be incredibly important for researchers in their studies and analyses.

Perucetus, in its living state, would have had a skeletal mass two to three times greater than that of Hope, despite the London blue whale being around five meters longer.

Richard Sabin, the curator of marine mammals at the Natural History Museum (NHM), expressed great excitement over the discovery of Perucetus and is keen to showcase some aspects of it in London.

He said, “We took the time to digitise Hope – to measure not just the weight of the bones but their shape as well, and our whale has now become something of a touchstone for people.”

He further said, “We don’t get hung up on labels – like ‘which was the largest specimen?’ – because we know science at some point will always come along with new data. What’s amazing about Perucetus is that it demonstrated so much mass some 30 million-plus years ago when we thought gigantism occurred in whales only 4.5 million years ago.”

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