After the dinosaurs went extinct, 65 million years ago, the biggest animals were confined to the world's oceans--as witness the 50-foot-long, 50-ton prehistoric sperm whale Leviathan (also known as Livyatan) and the 50-foot-long, 50-ton Megalodon, the biggest shark that ever lived. During the mid-Miocene epoch, the habitats of these two behemoths briefly overlapped, meaning they inevitably strayed into each other's territory. Who wins in a head-to-head battle between Leviathan and Megalodon? (Don't be afraid to express your opinion with our reader submission form, and see more dinosaur death duels.)
In the Near Corner - Leviathan, the Giant Sperm Whale
Discovered in Peru in 2008, the 10-foot-long skull of Leviathan testifies to the existence of a truly enormous prehistoric whale that plied the coasts of Miocene South America about 12 million years ago. Originally named Leviathan melvillei, after the biblical behemoth of myth and the author of Moby-Dick, this whale's name was changed to the Hebrew Livyatan after it turned out that "Leviathan" had already been assigned to a genus of prehistoric elephant.
Advantages. Aside from its almost impenetrable bulk, Leviathan had two major things going for it. First, this prehistoric whale's teeth were even longer and thicker than those of Megalodon, some of them measuring well over a foot long. Second, as a mammal, Leviathan presumably had a much bigger brain than any plus-sized sharks or fish in its habitat, and thus would have been quicker to react in close-quarter, fin-to-fin combat.
Disadvantages. Enormous size cuts two different ways: sure, Leviathan's sheer bulk would have intimidated would-be intruders, but it also presented much more square footage of warm flesh to an especially hungry (and desperate) Megalodon. Not the sleekest of whales, Leviathan couldn't have swum away from predators in any great hurry (nor would it have been inclined to do so, since it was presumably the apex predator of its particular patch of ocean, incursions by Megalodon aside).
In the Far Corner - Megalodon, the Monster Shark
Although Megalodon ("giant tooth") was only named in 1835, this prehistoric shark was known for hundreds of years before that, as its fossilized teeth were prized as "tongue stones" by avid collectors. Fossilized remnants of Megalodon have been found all over the world, which only makes sense considering that this shark ruled the seas for over 25 million years, from the late Oligocene to the early Pleistocene epochs.
Advantages. Picture a Great White Shark, scaled up by a factor of 10, and you'll get an idea what a fearsome killing machine Megalodon was. By some calculations, Megalodon wielded the most powerful bite (somewhere between 11 and 18 tons of force per square inch) of any animal that ever lived, and it had an unusual talent for biting off its prey's tough, cartilaginous fins, then zooming in for the kill once its adversary had been rendered dead in the water.
Disadvantages. As big as Megalodon's teeth were--about seven inches long fully grown--they were no match for the even bigger, foot-long choppers of Leviathan. Also, as a shark rather than a mammal, Megalodon possessed a comparably smaller, more primitive brain, and was presumably less capable of thinking its way out of a tough spot, instead acting entirely on instinct. And what if, despite its best efforts, it didn't succeed in shearing off its adversary's fins?
Let's not concern ourselves with who blundered into whose territory; let's just say that a hungry Megalodon and an equally famished Leviathan have suddenly found themselves snout-to-snout. The two undersea behemoths accelerate toward each other and collide with the force of two overloaded freight trains. The somewhat sleeker, more muscular Megalodon pokes, wriggles and dives around Leviathan, nipping yard-long chunks out of its dorsal and tail fins but not managing to land that one killer blow. The slightly less maneuverable Leviathan appears to be doomed, until its superior mammalian brain calculates the proper trajectories and it wheels around suddenly, mouth agape.
And the Winner Is...
Leviathan! Unable to hobble its whale adversary sufficiently to take a fatal chunk out of its soft underbelly, Megalodon is pretty much out of ideas--but its primitive shark brain won't allow it to retreat to a safe distance. Leviathan, though badly wounded, chomps down on Megalodon's back with the full force of its enormous jaws, crushing the giant shark's cartilaginous spine and rendering it as inoffensive as a jellyfish. Even as it continues to spew blood, Leviathan chows down on its opponent, sufficiently sated so as not to have to hunt again for a couple of days.