Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Natuurhistorisch Museum Rotterdam: Whales of Doom!

The Natuurhistorisch Museum Rotterdam is tucked away in a rather unassuming location in the city's Museumpark, but is impossible to miss on immediate approach thanks to an outsized dinosaur silhouette standing proudly outside, while a sperm whale skeleton looms from within the building's glass extension. Thanks to a temporary exhibition (open until 2013), visiting the museum at the moment is all about whales - quite possibly the second most awesome group of animals to have ever lived.

Nature invents the best monsters. Livyatan melvillei, the gigantic physeteroid (or sperm whale relative, if you prefer), seems far too preposterously terrifying to ever have really existed. But exist it did, some 12 million years ago alongside the equally ridiculous 'Megalodon' shark. The Rotterdam exhibition is entitled 'De grootste muil ooit', which translates to 'the biggest mouth ever', and undoubtedly riffs on a quote from the paper describing the beast, in which the authors spoke of "the biggest tetrapod bite ever found". It's a rather good title, although I think it should be 'WHALES OF DOOM', mostly because I thought of that and I'm well funny.

As someone quite accustomed to seeing the large maws of predatory dinosaurs, my first reaction upon seeing the above monstrosity was "BLIMEY!". It's big and no mistake, resembling a squashed sperm whale skull with comically oversized spikes o' doom jutting from its jaws. Livyatan (they wanted to call it Leviathan, but that was preoccupied) was almost certainly a fearsome apex predator, gobbling up other, smaller whales like they were minnows rather than, you know, bloody whales. In the picture below, you can see just how large this animal's reconstructed skull is next to a rather serious-looking dorky man. The Rotterdam museum is hosting this exhibition as a team of theirs was involved in this whale's discovery in Peru.

The mounted skull reconstruction is accompanied by this very lovely artwork. Unfortunately, I didn't take note of the artist's name - if anyone out there does know who painted this, I will be all too happy to put things right.

Somewhat later, and smaller, but no less ferocious-looking, Acrophyseter deinodon was discovered in the same part of the world as the mighty Livyatan. The specific name 'deinodon', or 'terrible tooth', is simply perfect.

The oceans of 12 million years ago were a weird world in which miniature baleen whales were gobbled up by gigantic great white-like sharks and sperm whale-like predatory whales. The museum presents an example of the skull of such a baleen whale, Cetotherium. Unfortunately, I can't remember the species...gah! I can only apologise.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that modern sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) look a little toothless after Livyatan, but they remain absolutely awesome - an embodiment of power and mystery. Besides, suction-feeding only sounds wimpy until you consider exactly what these titans are feeding on down there. Gigantic representatives of our own class, tackling Lovecraftian horrors in some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. #proudtobeamammal

The Peruvian fossil whale exhibition really is fantastic, and is easily worth the six euro entry fee on its own. Generous space is given to examine the whale skulls from every angle, and the fascinating and lengthy signage text is provided in both Dutch and English. I'm certainly not finished with this museum, either - in spite of the lack of nonavian dinosaurs, you can be sure there'll be more in the next few days!

But for now...bonus nerd-o-points to anyone who can identify this skull, and why it might be in an exhibition alongside Livyatan.



    And is that an Indohyus?
    There's a theory that they were a transitional species to the more whaley guys like Pakicetus and the like. They're kinda built like a water chevrotain, which is a semi-aquatic artiodactyl, and already have hallmarks of wateriness. (high-rotated eye sockets, long tubey snout)

  2. If I had to guess, id guess the little skull is Batodonoides, there because it's the smallest mammal skull? Smallest mammal mouth? Smallest tetrapod mouth? Nah, aren't there some really tiny reptiles? I'll go with smallest mammal mouth.

  3. 'Livyatan' is better than 'Leviathan' anyway, since it honours the hebrew origins of the monster. And 'melvillei' is just wonderful!

  4. Is that a Pygmy Shrew skull? It makes sense because the exhibition is about whales (huge mammals) and this shrew is one of the smallest mammals nowadays... Sorry for my poor English (I'm Brazilian) and your blog is fantastic!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Trying to not make more English mistakes... if the skull is not a pygmy's one, it's from another kind of shrew or insectivore mammal

  5. Hi Marc Vincent,

    Great post of your about the exhibit, you're lucky to have the opportunity to have gone there.

    Did you note if there was some information about the body mass of Livyatan ?
    And heard any indications of larger existing animals (rumors of ~40 cm Chilean teeth, so 4 cm more than those in the described skull) ?


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