Whales used to have sharp teeth, ancient fossils suggest

Scientists studying an ancient whale fossil believe the giant mammals were once formidable predators boasting sharp, widely-spaced teeth.

Scientists have painstakingly pieced together small bone fragments to recreate a 3D specimen of a prehistoric baleen whale, after discovering pieces of whale skull on a small island off the Antarctic Peninsula. 

Otago University Geology Department Professor Ewan Fordyce told Newshub the research shows scientists that whales were living in Antarctic waters 34 to 35 million years ago.

Modern baleen whales are gentle giants, using a sieve-like system to filter prey. But it's thought their ancient ancestor was a more formidable predator.

"It was a suction feeder. It was sucking in food. And the food was say 30cm [long] - we don't really know - but it wasn't dinky stuff," Prof Fordyce said.

An American palaeontologist found a lower jaw fragment off the Antarctic Peninsula in the 1970s. Prof Fordyce searched the same area during a project in 1987 and stumbled on a lucky discovery while escaping a snowstorm.

"And I went up a little gully hoping to make a shortcut back to camp. And as I walked up the gully I started to see chunks of bone scattered all over the place, broken up by frost," he said.

"It's been a time consuming process extracting the delicate fossil bone out of the rock."

The recreated whale specimen will now join the original jaw fossil on display at the Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.