Facts About Leviathan, the Giant Prehistoric Whale

A Leviathan attacks its prey with a mouthful of teeth, some up to 14 inches long
A Leviathan attacks its prey with a mouthful of teeth, some up to 14 inches long.

ThoughtCo / C. Letenneur

The biggest prehistoric whale that ever lived, and a pound-for-pound match for the giant shark Megalodon, Leviathan did its Biblical namesake proud. Below, you'll discover 10 fascinating Leviathan facts. 

01
of 10

Leviathan Is More Properly Known as Livyatan

An artist's rendering of a Leviathan and Cetotherium
An artist's rendering of a Leviathan and Cetotherium.

 Wikimedia Commons

The genus name Leviathan—after the fearsome sea monster in the Old Testament—seems more than appropriate for a giant prehistoric whale. The trouble is, shortly after researchers assigned this name to their discovery in 2010, they learned that it had already been used for a genus of mastodon erected a full century before. The quick fix was to substitute the Hebrew spelling Livyatan, though for all practical purposes most people still refer to this whale by its original name.

02
of 10

Leviathan Weighed as Much as 50 Tons

A size comparison of an adult Leviathan and an average-sized adult human
A size comparison of an adult Leviathan and an average-sized adult human.

Sameer Prehistorica

Extrapolating from its 10-foot-long skull, paleontologists believe that Leviathan measured upwards of 50 feet from head to tail and weighed as much as 50 tons, about the same size as a modern sperm whale. This made Leviathan by far the largest predatory whale of the Miocene epoch, about 13 million years ago, and it would have been secure in its position at the top of the food chain if not for the equally ginormous prehistoric shark megalodon (see next slide).

03
of 10

Leviathan May Have Tangled With the Giant Shark Megalodon

A size comparison showing an average-sized human swimming next to a megalodon
A size comparison showing an average-sized human swimming next to a megalodon. Wikimedia Commons

Because of the lack of multiple fossil specimens, we're not sure exactly how long Leviathan ruled the seas, but it's a sure bet that this giant whale occasionally crossed paths with the equally giant prehistoric shark megalodon. While it's dubious that these two apex predators would have deliberately targeted one another, they may well have butted heads in the pursuit of the same prey, a scenario explored in-depth in Megalodon vs. Leviathan—Who Wins?

04
of 10

Leviathan's Species Name Honors Herman Melville

An illustration from the pages of the book
A gruesome image from the book "Moby Dick".

 Wikimedia Commons

Fittingly enough, the species name of Leviathan (L. melvillei) pays homage to the 19th-century writer Herman Melville, creator of the book "Moby Dick." (It's unclear how the fictional Moby measured up to the real-life Leviathan in the size department, but it would likely have caused its distant ancestor to at least take a second look.) Melville himself, alas, died long before the discovery of Leviathan, though he may have been aware of the existence of another giant prehistoric whale, the North American Basilosaurus.

05
of 10

Leviathan Is One of the Few Prehistoric Animals to Be Discovered in Peru

A skull cast of the prehistoric whale, Livyatan melvillei
A skull cast of the prehistoric whale, Livyatan melvillei.

Hechtonicus / Wikimedia Commons

The South American country of Peru hasn't exactly been a hotbed of fossil discovery, thanks to the vagaries of deep geologic time and continental drift. Peru is best known for its prehistoric whales—not only Leviathan but proto-whales that preceded it by tens of millions of years—and also, oddly enough, for giant prehistoric penguins like Inkayacu and Icadyptes, which were roughly the size of full-grown human beings (and presumably a lot tastier).

06
of 10

Leviathan Was an Ancestor of the Modern Sperm Whale

Three whale biologists examine a dead, beached sperm whale
Three whale biologists examine a dead, beached sperm whale.

 Wikimedia Commons

Leviathan is technically classified as a "physeteroid," a member of a family of toothed whales that stretches back about 20 million years in the evolutionary record. The only physeteroids extant today are the pygmy sperm whale, the dwarf sperm whale, and the full-sized sperm whale that we all know and love; other long-extinct members of the breed include Acrophyseter and Brygmophyseter, which looked positively petite next to Leviathan and its sperm whale descendants.

07
of 10

Leviathan Had the Longest Teeth of Any Prehistoric Animal

Two giant teeth from a Leviathan
Two giant teeth from a Leviathan.

Wikimedia Commons 

You think Tyrannosaurus rex was equipped with some impressive choppers? How about the saber-toothed tiger? Well, the fact is that Leviathan possessed the longest teeth (excluding tusks) of any animal living or dead, about 14 inches long, which were used to tear into the flesh of its unfortunate prey. Amazingly, Leviathan even had bigger teeth than its undersea archenemy megalodon, though the slightly smaller teeth of this giant shark were considerably sharper.

08
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Leviathan Possessed a Large Spermaceti Organ

A diagram of the head of a sperm whale
A diagram of the head of a sperm whale.

Kurzon / Wikimedia Commons

 

All physeteroid whales (see Slide 6) are equipped with spermaceti organs, structures in their heads consisting of oil, wax, and connective tissue that served as ballast during deep dives. To judge by the enormous size of Leviathan's skull, though, its spermaceti organ may also have been employed for other purposes; possibilities include echolocation (biological sonar) of prey, communication with other whales, or even (and this is a long shot) intra-pod head butting during mating season!

09
of 10

Leviathan Probably Preyed on Seals, Whales, and Dolphins

A man sits inside a replica of the jaws of a Carcharodon Megalodon
A man sits inside a replica of the jaws of a Carcharodon Megalodon.

 Public Domain / Wikipedia

Leviathan would have needed to eat hundreds of pounds of food every day—not only to maintain its bulk, but also to fuel its warm-blooded metabolism—let's not lose sight of the fact that whales were mammals. Most likely, Leviathan's preferred prey included the smaller whales, seals, and dolphins of the Miocene epoch—perhaps supplemented with small servings of fish, squids, sharks, and any other undersea creatures that happened across this giant whale's path on an unlucky day.

10
of 10

Leviathan Was Doomed by the Disappearance of Its Accustomed Prey

An adult sperm whale swims alongside its offspring
An adult sperm whale swims alongside its offspring. Wikimedia Commons

Because of a lack of fossil evidence, we don't know precisely how long Leviathan persisted after the Miocene epoch. But whenever this giant whale went extinct, it was almost certainly because of the dwindling and disappearance of its favorite prey, as prehistoric seals, dolphins, and other smaller whales succumbed to changing ocean temperatures and currents. This, not so incidentally, is the same fate that befell Leviathan's archnemesis, the megalodon.