GETTING A LEG UP ON WHALE AND DOLPHIN EVOLUTION
NEW ANALYSIS SHEDS LIGHT ON ORIGIN OF CETACEANS
via AMNH (2009)
When the ancestors of living cetaceans—whales, dolphins and porpoises—first dipped their toes into water, a series of evolutionary changes were sparked that ultimately nestled these swimming mammals into the larger hoofed animal group. But what happened first, a change from a plant-based diet to a carnivorous diet, or the loss of their ability to walk?
A new paper published this week in PLoS One resolves this debate using a massive data set of the morphology, behavior, and genetics of living and fossil relatives. Cetacean ancestors probably moved into water before changing their diet (and their teeth) to include carnivory; Indohyus, a 48-million year-old semi-aquatic herbivore, and hippos fall closest to cetaceans when the evolutionary relationships of the larger group are reconstructed.
“If you only had living taxa to figure out relationships within this group of animals, you would miss a large amount of diversity and part of the picture of what is going on,” says Michelle Spaulding, lead author of the study and a graduate student affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History. “Indohyus is interesting because this fossil combines an herbivore’s dentition with adaptations such as ear bones that are adapted for hearing under water and are traditionally associated with whales only.”
The origin of whales, dolphins, and porpoises—with their highly modified legs and lack of hair—has long been a quandary for mammalogists. About 60 years ago, researchers first suggested that cetaceans were related to plant-eating ungulates, specifically to even-toed, artiodactyl mammals like sheep, antelope and pigs. In other words, carnivorous killer whales and fish-eating dolphins were argued to fit close to the herbivorous hoofed animal group. More recent genetic research found that among artiodactyls, hippos are the cetaceans’ closest living relatives…
(read more: American Mus. of Nat. Hist.) (image: Carl Buell)