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This Massive, Ancient Whale Weighed More Than the Space Shuttle

Paleontologists found an ancient whale fossil which might outweigh the blue whale for largest animal.

By Cassidy Ward
Artist's life rendering of Perucetus colossus

Andre the Giant (streaming now on Peacock) tells the story of one of the most beloved figures in professional wrestling, the eighth wonder of the world, and the gentle giant Fezzik in 1987’s The Princess Bride. He built a successful wrestling and acting career on the cache of his acromegaly, a form of gigantism. The condition, which hinges on excess levels of natural growth hormones, pushed Andre’s body to incredible proportions, capping out at 7 foot, four inches, and 520 pounds.

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Similar jumps in size have occurred in nature throughout our history. A few million years back, after a group of bog dogs called Pakicetus slipped back into the water, they grew in size until they became all of the various whales and dolphins which populate the oceans today. In fact, that marine gigantism allowed blue whales to become the largest animals of all time. At least, until now.

39-Million-Year-Old "Manatee" the Size of a Blue Whale

A recent study published in the journal Nature describes a newly discovered ancient whale, dubbed Perucetus colossus, which might have outweighed the blue whale to take the throne as the largest animal of all time. The specimen was found in southern Peru back in 2010 but it took a while for researchers to get their hands on it. Paleontologists uncovered 18 bones in total, comprising 13 vertebrae, four ribs, and part of a hip bone. The bones are incredibly dense, weighing in at over 100 kilograms apiece. It took researchers roughly three years to prise them from the rock and get them to Peru’s capital for study.

Illustration of recovered bones

In addition to being huge, each bone is also overly dense. When researchers attempted to drill into a vertebrae to measure its density, the drill broke on the first attempts. It’s that density which might push Perucetus colossus into the top spot for largest animal.

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The weight of the bones would have given Perucetus colossus improved buoyancy control, helping them to forage for food in the shallows. Biologists have found similar physical structures in modern-day manatees, supporting the notion that Perucetus colossus may have been a gentle giant patrolling the shallow seas like a gigantic aquatic cow.

Reconstruction of the skeleton puts it between 17 and 20 meters in length, which isn’t even close to the length of a blue whale. They are capable, in extreme cases, of getting to nearly 30 meters in length. But the weight of the bones tips the scale, making Perucetus colossus a short and squat (relatively speaking) but robust marine mammal. It’s also likely that this individual was rather average, suggesting that some specimens of Perucetus colossus may have shattered the blue whale weight record.

Spend some time with the gentle giant André René Roussimoff, in Andre the Giant, streaming now on Peacock!