Building a Whale-Sized Ancient Family Tree

By: The Scribe on Friday, May 3, 2013

baleen-whale…and we mean that literally!

Turns out that the family tree for the majestic creatures we know as blue whales and humpbacks just got a little bit bigger! The ancestors to modern baleen whales now have four new relatives in their history. In February 2013, scientists announced the discovery came thanks to, of all things, a California construction crew.

There were 11 species discovered at the construction site, including the four brand new ancient species who are now identified as ancient baleen whales. These particular species are part of a transitional step in whale history, and are related to the whales that became our modern whales—but are not direct ancestors to modern baleens.

Baleen whales are named for the frayed blades of material that hang from the roof of their mouth—kind of fingernail-like in terms of shape and flexibility—which are used by the creatures to strain seawater as they search for food.

These four new ancient species weren’t quite as passive in their food consumption, however—they had teeth! The fossils discovered by the construction crew were about 17-19 million years old, but the really fascinating part?

Toothed baleen whales were “supposed to have been extinct for about five million years or so” by that time, says palaeontologist Meredith Riven (California State University). So not only were these whales not extinct at the time they were thought to have been, but apparently there were still plenty of them thriving and living in this area.

Before finding these fossils, there’d been no other examples of baleen whales with teeth during the Miocene era—and after the initial discovery, palaeontologists were able to uncover hundreds of whale bones and more than 30 whale skulls from the construction site.

extinct whale toothOf the four new species, three are considerably smaller than the fourth. They’re about the size of a modern dolphin, while the fourth species was a nine-meter whale that bears similarities to another ancient whale species from about 35 million years ago.

Work is still ongoing on the fourth whale species at the site, so there may be more revelations to come!


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