An international team of researchers has uncovered the world’s largest fossilized skeleton of a whale, a find that suggests this group of animals became huge much earlier than previously thought. The team estimates that the whale was up to 26 meters (85 feet) in length and weighed between 130 and 150 tonnes. That makes it the largest extinct animal ever found, even bigger than the largest known dinosaur.
The whale has been nicknamed Giuliana, after Lake San Giuliano in southern Italy where it was found. The team collected the bones between 2006 and 2008 and had to wait for the level of the lake to be low enough for them to excavate the area. They discovered part of the skull which allowed them to establish the animal’s size. They also found vertebrae and a 3-meter-long (9-foot) rib bone that’s comparable in size to modern blue whale ribs. The findings are reported in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters.
The skeleton is 1.5 million years old and is likely to be a blue whale, given the similarities between the fossil and living specimens. The lead researcher, Giovanni Bianucci from the University of Pisa, told Italian newspaper La Repubblica that the team would love to follow up their study and conduct more tests to confirm their findings and maybe even find more peculiar characteristics of this ancient animal.
The discovery of the fossil also casts doubt on exactly when large baleen whales arose. The team suggests that huge whales might have evolved at least 3.6 million years ago if not further back in time, around 6 million years ago, millions of years earlier than previously thought.
“The fact that such a large whale existed that long ago suggests that large whales had been around for quite a while,” co-author Felix Marx, a palaeontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, told National Geographic. “I don’t think species can evolve to such a size overnight.”
However, the researchers stress in their paper that these vast whales were the exception rather than the norm, and smaller whale species were a lot more common until 3 million years ago. The blue whale is the largest animal that ever existed. The species is currently classified as endangered with between 10,000 and 25,000 individuals left in the wild.