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Giant whale fossil found in desert in Peru

July 5, 2010 |  3:00 pm

Ancient sperm whale peru Paleontologists have discovered remnants of the fossilized skull of an ancient whale in a Peruvian desert -- and named it after Herman Melville, the author of "Moby Dick."

The newly discovered species, Leviathan melvillei, lived about 12 million years ago. Scientists believe it feasted on smaller whales that shared what were oceans at the time, as seen in the artist's rendering at left.

The international team that discovered the fossil announced its findings last week in the journal Nature. The whale skull was found in late 2008 in the Pisco-Ica desert in southern Peru, known as a veritable "Jurassic park" for paleontologists (link in Spanish).

Upon catching glimpse of the whale skull's giant teeth, the researchers at first thought they had come across elephant tusks.

"This part of the Peruvian coast, about 500 kilometers south of Lima, is probably the richest place in the world for fossil marine mammals," says one of the scientists involved in the study, in this video at Nature.

Scientists expect to return to the Peruvian desert to search for more clues about the Leviathan melvillei. The prehistoric whale skull is currently on view at the Natural History Museum in Lima, Peru's capital.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image credit: C. Letenneur for Nature, via the Associated Press

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