balena di Matera Balaenoptera cf. musculus di Matera

The largest fossil whale ever found

The largest fossil whale ever found

New fossils shed light on the evolution of extreme gigantism of whales in a study involving palaeontologists from the University of Pisa


A new study just published in the international journal Biology Letters, published by the prestigious Royal Society of London, describes the enormous skeleton of a fossil blue whale, discovered in 2006 on the edge of Lake San Giuliano near Matera (southern Italy). This research involved the palaeontologists Giovanni BianucciAlberto CollaretaWalter LandiniCaterina Morigi and Angelo Varola of the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of PisaAgata Di Stefano of the Department of Biological Geological and Environmental Sciences of the University of Catania, and Felix Marx of the Directorate Earth and History of Life of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

balena di Matera Balaenoptera cf. musculus di Matera
Excavation of the fossil skeleton of Balaenoptera cf. musculus on the edge of San Giuliano Lake, Matera, Italy (photo G. Bianucci).

Giovanni Bianucci, who took part in the excavation and coordinated the study of the fossil, explains: "The shape of its bones clearly identifies the Matera fossil as a close relative of the living blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the largest animal that ever lived. This idea also fits with the estimated length of the new specimen, which at 26 meters is the largest whale fossil ever described, and perhaps the largest whale that ever swam in the Mediterranean Sea. This finding is important not just because it is a world record, but above all because of its implications for the evolution of extreme size".

balena di Matera Balaenoptera cf. musculus di Matera
Comparison between the ear bones of the extant blue whale and the fossil from Matera, highlighting similar features (photo and composition by F. Marx and G. Bianucci).

Gigantism is a phenomenon that has emerged, independently and at different times, in many vertebrate lineages. Large body size is thought to confer some form of competitive advantage, but exactly how and why it evolved remains a matter of debate. In recent years, research into vertebrate gigantism has focused especially on baleen whales (Mysticeti), which include the largest animals on Earth. By far the biggest is the blue whale, which can exceed 30 meters in length and reach up to 180 tonnes in weight.

Skull of Balaenoptera cf. musculus from Matera (left), next to an explanatory drawing showing the position of the preserved bones in the complete skull (photo of the skull by Akhet s.r.l.; drawing and composition by G. Bianucci and F. Marx).

Unlike most other mammals, mysticetes lack teeth, and instead use comb-like keratinous plates hanging from their upper jaw to trap tiny prey like krill. Their extremely large size has been interpreted as a way to avoid predation, e.g. by the - now extinct - gigantic sperm whale Livyatan melvillei, or the equally impressive megatooth shark Carcharocles megalodon; or as the result of a recent change in the availability and distribution of prey, which would have forced whales to move between distant feeding and/or breeding grounds.

balena di Matera Balaenoptera cf. musculus di Matera
Artistic reconstruction of the Matera whale (drawing by Alberto Gennari).

"Most fossil whales are much smaller than their living relatives" explains Alberto Collareta, "which has led to the idea that baleen whale gigantism is a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, one recent study modelled the evolution of mysticete body size over time, and found that extremely large whales only arose during the past 2-3 million years. Unfortunately, the mysticete fossil record of this period is rather poor, which means that scientists so far had to rely mainly on data from the living species".

Fossils from the past 2-3 million years are rare, because sea levels during this period were often lower than today. Most of the fossils that formed were drowned when the water rose again, and now lie inaccessible beneath the ocean floor. There are, however, some exceptions, such as the new blue whale from Matera. Agata di Stefano and Caterina Morigi analysed microfossils found with the specimen, which showed that the animal lived sometime between 1.49 and 1.25 million years ago. Its size demonstrates that extremely large whales already existed back then, and likely arose earlier than previously thought. 

"Together, the Matera whale and some other, even older finds from Peru show that large whales evolved earlier, and probably more gradually, than previously thought. These ocean giants play a crucial role as ecosystem engineers, and probably have done so for quite some time." says Felix Marx.

Giovanni Bianucci concludes: "The profound impact of baleen whales on the modern ocean highlights the need to understand their deep-time ecology. Doing so will help us gain a better understanding of the evolutionary dynamics of the marine environment, and the delicate balance of the biological communities within it".

Mysticete body length plotted against time. Red circles indicate the position of the Matera whale and three new fossil mysticetes from Peru (diagram modified by Graham J. Slater et al.; drawing of Balaenoptera cf. musculus by Carl Buell).


Press release from the University of Pisa

Cenomani Gauls Verona Seminario Vescovile

Funerary customs, diet, and social behavior in a pre-Roman Italian Celtic community

Funerary customs, diet, and social behavior in a pre-Roman Italian Celtic community

Cenomani Gauls Verona Seminario Vescovile
Localization of main Celtic necropolises of Italy and examples of burials from SV. Credit: Laffranchi et al, 2019

Analysis of human remains from a Pre-Roman Celtic cemetery in Italy shows variations in funerary treatment between individuals that could be related to social status, but these variations were not reflected by differences in their living conditions. Zita Laffranchi of Universidad de Granada, Spain, and colleagues present these new findings in the open access journal PLOS ONE on April 17, 2019.

Archeological and written evidence have provided scant insight into social organization among the Cenomani Gauls, Celtic people who began to spread into Northern Italy in the 4th century BC. In a preliminary step to address this knowledge gap, Laffranchi and colleagues analyzed remains from Verona - Seminario Vescovile, a Cenomani burial site that was used between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC.

Seminario Vescovile features some variety in funerary approaches. Some individuals were buried face up, face down, or on their sides; some with animals; and some with varying amounts and types of objects, such as pottery and decorations. Focusing on 125 individuals buried at the site, the researchers set out to explore links between funerary treatment, age, sex, and diet--the first such study for Cenomani Gauls.

Bone analysis revealed different carbon and nitrogen isotope levels between sexes, indicating that men and women at Verona-Seminario Vescovile had different diets. Tooth analysis suggests that the population had higher rates of dental enamel defects than did other Pre-Roman and Celtic groups of the Italian Peninsula, pointing to higher physiological stress levels during childhood.

The researchers were surprised to find no differences between sexes in funerary treatment. They also found no links between funerary differences and isotope measurements or enamel defects. Increased age was somewhat related to increased number of grave objects, but age and burial position were not linked. These findings suggest the existence of weak social differentiation that could have influenced funerary treatment, but that, apart from different diets for men and women, individuals in the group shared similar living conditions.

The authors conclude that the individuals they analyzed were likely members of a homogeneous and potentially low-status group within the original population. Still, they call for extensive additional research to clarify the implications of their findings.

The authors add: "This is the first combined study of diet, developmental stress, and funerary patterns in a Celtic community from the Italian peninsula: the little known Cenomani (North-Eastern Italy)."


Citation: Laffranchi Z, Cavalieri Manasse G, Salzani L, Milella M (2019) Patterns of funerary variability, diet, and developmental stress in a Celtic population from NE Italy (3rd-1st c BC). PLoS ONE 14(4): e0214372.

Funding: The authors received no specific funding for this work.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Press release from Public Library of Science (PLOS)

Francavilla Marittima Calabria University of Basel Cultures in contact

An exhibition presents 10 years of Basel excavations in Francavilla Marittima

Cultures in Contact - An exhibition presents 10 years of Basel excavations in Francavilla Marittima

Francavilla Marittima Calabria University of Basel Cultures in contact
Foreign lifestyle and local tradition: The finds from a male tomb of Francavilla Marittima, Calabria, testify to the adoption of Greek drinking and eating habits by the Italian elites in the 8th century BC. The large clay pot was used for mixing wine and water, the bronze kettle (right) for cooking meat. The iron ax and the bronze fibulae identify the deceased as a member of the local upper class. Photo: © Victor Brigola, Stuttgart.

More than 30 ancient graves have been uncovered by archaeologists and students of the University of Basel as part of an educational excavation in southern Italy. The graves date from a time when the first Greeks and Orientals arrived in the region about 3000 years ago and document the cultural exchange with the local population. The results and methods of the research project will now be presented in an exhibition at the University Library of Basel, which opens on 12 April 2019.

Even in ancient times, the south of Italy was a hub for migration. The Iron Age settlement of Francavilla Marittima (ca. 800-700 BC) played a key role as a contact point between the local population and traders and colonists from Greece and the Near East.

Since 2009, the Basel project has been researching the burial site of this settlement and has uncovered 33 graves of women, men, and children to date. Grave goods such as vessels, figurines, jewelry, and weapons offer a wealth of information about the lifestyle of the local elite and their reaction to the arrival of colonists.

Productive cultural exchange

“Initially, we suspected strong differences between the locals and the colonists,” states the archaeologist Prof. Martin Guggisberg, who has been leading the excavation. “After 10 years of research, however, we see the relationship in a new light: not confrontation and opposition determined the picture, but dynamic processes of cultural transformation that led to the gradual establishment of a new, Greek order from around 700 BC onwards.

The research team discovered evidence for the intertwining of the traditional and the new in the tomb of a local ruler. Among his grave goods were different sorts of vessels and bowls that point to Greece and prove the adoption of new drinking and cultural practices. By contrast, his inhumation in fetal position underlines his adherence to the local tradition.

Iron swords buried in plaster coat

Since the swords were not well preserved, they had to be retrieved in a plaster coat. They were then x-rayed with a computer tomograph in the local hospital.

Of special importance is also the discovery of three iron swords. They belong to the oldest documents of this new weapon type in Italy and document the penetration of new fighting techniques from the East. Since the swords were very badly preserved, the research team first used a plaster coat and then digital analysis methods to reconstruct them graphically and in 3D print.

The swords in the computer tomograph.
One sword, three views: the found swords belong to the oldest documents of this new weapon type in Italy. Since the metal in the ground was corroded, the researchers used digital analysis methods, which made it possible to "print" one of the swords three-dimensionally and reconstruct it graphically.

From excavation to exhibition

Over the years, more than 70 students participated in the teaching excavation in Francavilla Marittima, learning how to use pickaxes, trowels, and brushes as well as the latest surveying technology and digital documentation methods. The students conceived the exhibition “Cultures in Contact” under the guidance of Atelier Degen+Meili, an exhibition consultancy based in Basel. The result of the collaboration is a presentation that not only makes visible the cultural contacts at the time but also presents the working methods of the project.

Prof. Dr. Martin Guggisberg from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Basel will introduce the exhibition on 12 April 2019 at 5.30 pm. Further speakers will be Prof. Dr. Thomas Grob, Vice President of the University of Basel, Dr. Pietro Maria Paolucci, Italian Consul in Basel, as well as Dr. Franco Bettarini, Mayor of Francavilla Marittima.

Francavilla Marittima: Basel excavation and exhibition

Cultures in Contact – 10 years of Basel excavations in Francavilla Marittima, University Library Basel, Schönbeinstrasse 18-20 (1st floor), Basel. The exhibition runs until 9 June 2019. Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 8 am – 10.30 pm, Saturday 9 am – 7 pm, free admission. On 15 May 2019, 6.15 p.m., there will be a theme evening with Prof. Martin Guggisberg. Public guided tours: 16 April and 15 May 2019, at 6.15 pm.

The Francavilla Marittima project is the result of a successful cultural collaboration between Switzerland and Italy. It has received support from various partner institutions, including the Archaeological Soil Research of the Canton of Basel-Stadt, the Department of Prehistoric and Scientific Archaeology of the University of Basel, and the Institute of Forensic Medicine of the University of Bern, the Max Planck Institute for Human History, Jena, the Museo Nazionale Archeologico della Sibaritide, the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Catanzaro, Cosenza e Crotone, the Municipality of Francavilla Marittima and the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali of the Italian State. The excavations are supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Voluntary Academic Society of Basel, the Max Geldner Foundation and the University of Basel.



Press release from the University of Basel/Universität Basel