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What is the Largest Fish That Ever Lived?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 21, 2024
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The largest fish that ever lived is Leedsichthys problematicus. It is thought to have grown to lengths of 22 m (72 ft), about the length of a school bus, although this estimate cannot be certain because no complete spine has been found. Regardless, it is quite certain that Leedsichthys is the largest fish to have ever lived that scientists are currently aware of. It is more than twice the size of the whale shark, the largest fish in the seas today. The closest living relative of Leedsichthys is the bowfish.

Leedsichthys problematicus was discovered by fossil collector Alfred Leeds, and the species was named in his honor. Leedsichthys means “Leed’s fish,” while problematicus is a reference both to the difficulty in imagining a fish of this size, and the difficulty of classifying it once it was found. Leedsichthys was a pachycormid, an extinct group of bony fish. Shortly it was discovered, it was realized it was the largest fish that ever lived.

Fossils of the fish have found in England and Germany have been dated to 155 million years ago, during the late Jurassic era, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Like the whale shark and numerous whales, Leedsichthys was a planktivore, meaning it exclusively consumed plankton. It would have been preyed upon by marine carnivores of the time, such as the plesiosaur Liopleurodon.

One of the biggest Leedsichthys fossils was found in Peterborough, England, where it was discovered as a tangled mass of fractured bones. Unlike large dinosaurs, Leedsichthys had delicate bones, many of which were crushed by the weight of clay over millions of years. One of the largest specimens, called Big Meg, filled over 20 museum drawers with its bones. Its tail alone included over 10,000 fragments.

Investigations of Leedsichthys fossils have shown that 8 – 10% of its body mass was compromised of organic material it consumed, like algae and plankton.

Pachycormids like Leedsichthys were eventually replaced by a new group called teleosts, which comprise 95% of all living fish today. Teleosts produced larger numbers of eggs, focusing less care on each individual, and this evolutionary strategy has proved successful. However, no teleost can claim the title of largest fish ever.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By pastanaga — On May 14, 2011

The biggest fish might inspire awe and of course it should, but the largest animal (including fish) that ever lived is still around today. The blue whale, which also feeds on microscopic organisms (although I believe it eats krill rather than plankton) is endangered though, so it might not be around much longer. I hope it never goes extinct.

I wonder if this fish also had some kind of filter to get food out of the water, like the whale has baleen. It seems like it would be difficult to eat enough if it didn't.

By pleonasm — On May 14, 2011

If this kind of fish didn't produce many eggs, I wonder if that means it cared for the ones it did produce. I think it would be cute if the largest fish that ever existed doted on its tiny offspring. It's probably impossible to ever know, as if the skeletons of older fish barely survived the little baby ones probably didn't have a chance to become fossils.

It's too bad we can't just go back in time and take a look. It would solve so many questions.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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