Palaeontology: This whale was probably not so colossal - Triops Galaxy

Palaeontology: This whale was probably not so colossal

The existence of an early whale species that dwarfed even the imposing blue whale caused quite a stir. This extinct whale species, known as Perucetus colossus, was once considered a possible candidate for the “heaviest animal of all time”. However, the latest findings cast doubt on this assumption.

Doubts about previous analyses

In 2023, palaeontologists made a groundbreaking discovery: they came across extremely dense and heavy bones that undoubtedly belonged to Perucetus colossus. Based on these finds, the total weight of the whale was estimated at up to 340 tonnes, which would have made it heavier than any other known sea creature. This estimate even exceeded the dimensions of today’s blue whales, whose maximum weight is around 270 tonnes. However, the reliability of these estimates was quickly questioned, especially after another study by Ryosuke Motani from the University of California at Davis and his team.

The researchers in Motani’s team estimate the weight of Perucetus colossus to be significantly lower, namely between 60 and 110 tonnes. They questioned the previous analyses and based their criticism on the density of the bones and findings on the growth of vertebrates. In particular, they questioned the assumption that the total weight of an animal was proportional to the size of its skeleton. This assumption was based on the idea that the mass of the skeleton and the rest of the body increase in the same proportion. However, measurements on other animals show that this is not always the case.

The bones of the Perucetus colossus, whose rough translation means “the colossal whale from Peru”, were exceptionally dense. This heaviness of the bones could have compensated for buoyancy in the water, similar to other marine animals. The researchers described that each individual vertebra in the find weighed well over 100 kilograms. The approximately 17-metre-long whale-like skeleton was therefore two to three times heavier than the 25-metre-long skeleton of a modern-day blue whale, explained Amson’s team at the beginning of August 2023.

The estimates of the total weight of Perucetus colossus were based on the weight of the bones found, from which the total weight of the whale and its soft tissue was deduced. However, as Motani and his team argue, pachyostosis leads to misjudgements. In this phenomenon, the bodies are unusually light compared to the bone mass. As a result, the previous estimates of the extinct whale’s weight could be exaggerated.

Sladjan Lazic

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