Ancient megalodon sharks may have nibbled on the snouts of sperm whales, according to a new analysis of fossilized marine mammal skulls. An international team of researchers has described signs of this “focalized foraging” – also known as deliberate chewing – in the bones of a 7-million-year-old whale in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Both modern and fossil sperm whales possess distinctive “supercranial basins” (read: giant legs) that take up about a third of its body length, which can reach around 60 feet. Inside those massive heads are their incredibly complex sound-producing organs, which allow them to make louder sounds than any other animal on the planet. But most of the supracranial basin is filled with an extremely fatty substance called spermaceti.
In the new study, which analyzed various sperm whale specimens stored at the Natural History Museum in Lima, paleontologists found clusters of bite marks that corresponded to the fattest areas of the nose.
“Many sharks used these sperm whales as fat storage,” said lead study author Aldo Benitez-Palomino, a PhD student at the University of Zurich’s Paleontological Museum in Switzerland. Live science. “I think in one specimen we have at least five or six species of sharks biting the same region – which is crazy.”
[Related: How great white sharks probably hastened the demise of megalodon]
Unlike minke whales, which feed on small organisms, sperm whales are toothed predators that eat fish and other marine creatures. But Benítez-Palomino and his colleagues argue that their fat schnoz would have provided a much more attractive food source than the more docile but slender marine mammals that swam in the oceans at the time. Also, it is likely that the sperm whales’ noses were gnawed off only after the giants had died of other causes.
“Our findings show that all of these events are postmortem,” Benitez-Palomino said Newsweek. “The carcasses floated for days until all the fat was swallowed by the sharks, unable to float any further.”
The research team found an array of bite marks that corresponded to multiple species of hungry shark, but unsurprisingly, it was the megalodon that bit the nose and made the most headlines. Otodus megalodon, which went extinct about 3 million years ago, is one of the few other carnivores in history to rival the sperm whale in size. Scientists are still discovering how the ancient beasts lived and died, and Hollywood remains obsessed with the idea that they may still be lurking in the depths.
In June, an unrelated study published in Scientific progress suggest that megalodon may have been at the very top of the food chain – hunting other large predators and perhaps even engaging in cannibalism. But their status as an apex predator is still up for debate, as other researchers have concluded that megalodon was probably at the same level of the food chain as ancient great white sharks. In fact, the competition between them may have helped drive Meg to extinction.
While this latest study gives us only a small glimpse into the megalodon’s intriguing diet, it serves as a reminder that even the most aggressive predators are usually nothing less than fast food in the form of a whale carcass.
“More than answering questions, I think it makes me have more inquiries about all these findings,” Benitez-Palomino said Live science.
With mysterious and fascinating creatures like giant-headed sperm whales and long-lost mega sharks on the menu, it’s no surprise that researchers are hungry to learn more.