A bizarre whale that roamed the oceans 28 million years ago had huge razor sharp fangs.
The sea monster resembled a dolphin – but was far more ferocious, say scientists.
Its remains were unearthed at a prehistoric animal graveyard on the North Pacific coast of Washington State.
Olympicetus thalassodon is one of the earliest toothed whales – living alongside the iconic apex predator the ichthyosaur.
Lead author Dr. Jorge Velez-Juarbe, of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, said: “The teeth of Olympicetus are truly weird.
“They are what we refer to as heterodont, meaning they show differences along the tooth row.
“This stands out against the teeth of more advanced odontocetes whose teeth are simpler and tend to look nearly the same.”
They also include modern dolphins and porpoises – shedding fresh light on their evolution.
Olympicetus and its close kin belonged to a family called Simocetidae, so far known only from the North Pacific and among the first diverging groups of toothed whales.
It reached around ten feet in length, feeding on individual prey such as fish, squid and marine mammals – perhaps even other whales.
Dr. Velez-Juarbe said: “Olympicetus thalassodon and its close relatives show a combination of features that truly sets them apart from any other group of toothed whales.
“Some of these characteristics, like the multi-cusped teeth, symmetric skulls, and forward position of the nostrils makes them look more like an intermediate between archaic whales and the dolphins we are more familiar with.”
Olympicetus was identified as a new species from its skull, jawbone and teeth. Skeletons of two other closely related odontocetes are also described in PeerJ.
The fossils were collected from an exposed rock layer on the Olympic Peninsula coast and date to between 26.5 and 30.5 million years – forming part of an unusual fauna.
There were flightless penguin-like birds called plotopterids and strange early relatives of seals and walruses named desmostylians.
Members of the ecosystem also included primitive baleen whales from which the blue whale – the world’s largest ever animal – descends.
Differences in body size, teeth and other feeding-related structures suggest simocetids showed different forms of prey acquisition and preferences.
Other aspects of the biology of early-toothed whales are yet to be elucidated such as whether they used echolocation – like their living relatives.
Some aspects of their skull can be related to the presence of echolocating-related structures.
These include a structure in the forehead called a melon – which acts as a sort of ‘sound lens’.
An earlier study suggested neonatal individuals could not hear ultrasonic sounds.
The next step would be to investigate the earbones of juveniles and adults to test if this changed as they grew older.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
Edited by Saba Fatima and Asad Ali
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