This blog has featured posts concerning saber-toothed seals and saber-toothed marsupials but did you know that the oceans around South America once contained a saber-toothed whale? Odobenocetops lived during the Pliocene era (around 2.5 to 5 million years ago). Two similar species are known in the genus from fossils discovered in coastal Peru. An early member of the dolphin superfamily, Odobenocetops was probably more closely related to narwhals and belgugas then to modern dolphins and killer whales.
Measuring only a little longer than 2 meters (6 feet) in length, Odobenocetops was remarkable (at least among whales) for its flexible neck–which could turn 90 degrees. The powerful blunt snout of the endearing little whale suggests that it fed from beds of mollusks and other bottom dwelling shellfish, which it rasped from their shells with a muscular tongue. Additionally, the Odobenocetopsidae had echolocation abilities like modern dolphins–although probably not so amazingly precise, since the extinct whales’ echolocation melons were much smaller than those of living dolphins.
Of course the most distinctive features of Odobenocetops were their long spiky teeth running parallel along their sides. Scientists speculate that these tusks could have been used to seek food or as a sensory organ–like the narwhal’s sensitive tusk. Perhaps male whales used their tusks to battle for females, like walruses do (although they seem awfully brittle for such battles). Some males had uneven tusks. The sole known skull of a male Odobenocetops leptodon features a right-hand tusk 1.2 m (4 ft.) long, while the left-hand tusk is only 25 cm (10 in.) long. Since this is the only male O. leptodon skull currently known, it is unclear whether such asymmetry was normal.
It is striking that the whales’ saber teeth were held next to the body and it makes one think that the whale did not execute many sharp turns. A humorous but somewhat sad cartoon which I found unattributed on the web demonstrates the potential drawbacks of the Odobenocetops’ striking saber toothed design.