Ancient whale was 'T-rex of the oceans'

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The Independent Online

A fossil of a sea mammal with massive, razor-sharp teeth that roamed the waters off southern Australia about 25 million years ago has been found embedded in a rock on a beach in Victoria.

Only its snout and parts of one eye socket could be seen, protruding from a boulder, when it was spotted by a teenager, Stuamn Hunder, on Jan Juc beach. The rest of the skull was embedded in the rock.

The work of prising it out fell to Erich Fitzgerald, a 25-year-old PhD student at Monash University, in Melbourne. Mr Fitzgerald - who calls the creature "Australia's very own T-rex of the oceans" - spent three years on the project, and the skull went on display yesterday at the Melbourne Museum.

The creature, which used to "chomp" through its prey, has been named Janjucetus hunderi, after the beach where it was found, and the boy who found it. It was described yesterday as one of the most important marine mammal fossil finds in Australia.

Palaeontologists say the ancient predator was an early baleen whale. But today's baleen whales have no teeth; instead, they use baleen plates - a sort of sieve - in their upper jaws to trap small crustaceans, having taken in a mouthful of sea water. Mr Fitzgerald said the fossil, with its huge teeth, "literally rewrites our understanding of the evolution of baleen whales".

He said: "It was not a passive gentle giant like today's blue whale, or the humpback whale, but a voracious predator that captured large fish.

"This is something completely new,an entirely new family; a new branch on the evolutionary tree."

Mr Fitzgerald said the species lived at a time when Australia was covered by a wet rainforest populated by giant wombats and kangaroos. The central deserts, meanwhile, were blanketed with river systems and lakes inhabited by freshwater dolphins. "At this very same time, Janjucetus was trolling the waters off Victoria," he said.

The creature was more than three metres long, and had unusually large eyes, to compensate for not having sonar. Mr Fitzgerald said it probably became extinct as a result of the climate suddenly becoming warmer about 23 million years ago. "After that event, most of these archaic but still quite specialist whales became extinct, and after that time all we have left are the modern whales and dolphins." he said.