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Fossil Baleen Whale Fills Evolutionary Gap; Explains How Modern Whales Lost Their Teeth

Dec 02, 2015 03:11 PM EST
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A fossil from a new species of baleen whales that swam through the North Pacific Ocean between 30 and 33 million years ago was recently recovered from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The newcomer, subsequently dubbed Fucaia buelli, is shedding light on the ways ancient toothed whales transitioned to modern baleen filter feeders, according to researchers from New Zealand's University of Otago.

"We think that Fucaia was similar to modern dolphins in capturing its prey using its teeth and perhaps strong suction. Suction feeding likely enabled early whales to move from a tooth-based feeding style to filter-feeding, by allowing them to capture smaller prey items than teeth alone could handle," Dr. Felix Marx, co-author of the recent study, explained in a news release.

The partial fossil skull and teeth revealed distinctive wear patterns, indicating Fucaia likely chewed its food. On the other hand, modern baleen whales use comb-like baleen plats to filter krill from the surrounding water. Ultimately, suction feeding behaviors could have eventually led to present-day filter feeding. 

"This behavior may have prompted the evolution of baleen from the enlarged gums, possibly as a more efficient way to expel the water sucked in with the food. As the prey became smaller, teeth became increasingly obsolete and, ultimately, were lost completely in modern baleen whales," Professor Ewan Fordyce, one of the study researchers, added.

Fucaia buelli belongs in a well-known extinct group, the family Aetiocetidae. Based on the fossil evidence, researchers suggest the ancient animals were active hunters with small bodies and a limited range. Unlike modern whales, Fucaia would not have performed seasonal migrations.  

Their findings were recently published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

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