On the Path Towards Leviathan

By Carl Zimmer | February 11, 2008 4:51 pm

aetiocetus500.jpgIt’s time to add a new chapter to the Whale Chronicles….

…more below the fold…

Evidence from both DNA and fossils agree that whales evolved from hoofed mammals on land. At first they may have been occasional swimmers, only later evolving into meat-eaters hunting for prey in the water. Between about 50 and 40 million years ago, they became increasingly adapted to the sea. Paleontologists have found fossils of dozens of species of early whales documenting this transition.

Most of those lineages of early whales became extinct. Living whales belong to only two lineages that emerged about 35 million years ago. One branch, the toothed whales, include sperm whales and dolphins. They continued to hunt for big prey, using sophisticated sonar to help them find fish and squid. But the other lineage took a very different path. They evolved into giant grazers known as baleen whales. They gulp vast quantities of water and then filter out the tiny fish or invertebrates with the help of baleen–giant fronds of keratin.

As I’ve written here, baleen is all-or-nothing among living whales. They either have it, or they don’t. Just as we want to know how whales left land, the question naturally arises, how did baleen evolve? Last year an important piece of that puzzle fell into place with the description of a fossil whale–a baleen whale without baleen. The 25-million-year-old Janjucetus still had the ancestral teeth, but it had acquired some traits only found in baleen whales today, such as lower jaw bones that were no longer fused at the front.

Now scientists have found more pieces of the puzzle. In a paper posted today on the journal Systematic Biology, researchers look at how those primitive baleen whales evolved the body plan we see today. First they analyzed fossils and DNA from living baleen whales to produce a detailed tree of the entire group. They then noted where along the tree different parts of the baleen whale anatomy first emerged. Some of those traits have long been known; others the scientists are reporting for the first time.

After the ancestors of Janjucetus branched off, for example, the lower jaws of baleen whales became thin and bowed. They still had teeth, but they began to grow baleen. The evidence the scientists offer for early baleen comes from fossils of a whale called Aetiocetus. Baleen doesn’t fossilize easily, but it leaves evidence of its existence on whale skulls, which do. In all living whales, baleen tissue is supplied with blood by vessels that fit snugly into troughs cut into the palate. Toothed whales don’t have these troughs (known as nutrient foramina), nor do fossils of primitive whales. Janjucetus, an early baleen whale, doesn’t have the troughs either. Yet Aetiocetus–a baleen whale that still had teeth–had the troughs. So it seems that they had both teeth and baleen: a classic transitional form.

The painting above, by the irreplaceable Carl Buell, is a reconstruction of Aetiocetus as the scientists envision it. Earlier baleen whales may have begun filtering prey with their teeth, the way crabeater seals do today. Baleen may have evolved in whales such as Aetiocetus as a way to make tooth-filtering more efficient.

After Aetiocetus branched off, however, baleen began to take over while teeth began to fade. Today baleen whales develop tooth buds as embryos, but they disappear as the whales mature. The authors of the new paper took a look at what happened to three genes that build tooth enamel in mammals. In other mammals–including us–the genes have evolved, as natural selection sculpted teeth for different ways of life. They still work. They still work in toothed whales, too. But in baleen whales, something else happened. The enamel genes broke down. They mutated in devastating ways, preventing the genes from making working proteins. These broken genes are another imprint of evolution, fossils made not of rock, but of living DNA.

[Image courtesy Carl Buell]

MORE ABOUT: Evolution

Comments (11)

  1. Paula Helm Murray

    thanks! I love reading about whale evolution (I am a mere amateur natural historian). This is why I bookmarked your blog!

  2. so should I continue to read “At Water’s Edge” or should I put it down now and wait for the next edition?

  3. Yay Carl! (Both of them!)

  4. Bill

    Is there any precedent for evolution of baleen-like structures in fish or other organisms?

  5. Jason

    As having very recent terrestrial ancestors, the ancient whale would have eaten at the surface. During its transformation into a below surface diner, I would imagine that proto-baleen would be an effective way to remove large amounts of water from the mouth, thus mitigating ingestion of saltwater and increasing the efficiency of finding, catching, and eating prey.

    Proto-baleen would have been more about removing water than about straining small animals, thus we see the sharp teeth as well.

    If the size of the tongue could be determined somehow (bone attachments) we could predict its effective use as a piston, forcing water out of the mouth to allow for below-surface ingestion.

    Only later, when toothed whales would develop more effective means of removing salt water from its system would the baleen slowly become less necessary and disappear altogether.


  6. Hume's Ghost

    Heh. A scan of google turns up hits for people saying that baleen is irreducibly complex.

  7. Mats

    The article, however, failed to explain why would a land mammal leave the land, and go for a dip.

    It didn’t explain either how did all the land mammal’s land-adapted characteristicis evolved at the same time, in order to make the “would be whale” become more and more aquatic, but still able to survive on land while he is not totally aquatic.

    But…questioning that whales evolved is religious.

  8. Mats [8]: No, questioning that whales evolved is not religious. However, it’s necessary to consider all the evidence. If you look at the evolutionary tree of whales, based on fossils discovered so far, you will see that the body plan of living whales did not evolve “at the same time.” Different parts of the body adapted at different times. Hindlegs, for example, did not entirely disappear even after whales had become entirely adapted to life in the water. As for the ability to be aquatic and still able to survive on land–you only need to consider living mammals to see how that could have happened. The water chevrotain, for example, is a small deer that dives regularly in rivers. Seals, on the other hand, can spend weeks at sea but can come back on land to reproduce.

    This particular article did not address these issues because they took place millions of years *before* baleen whales evolved. But I’ve written many posts here, and an entire book (At the Water’s Edge), on that subject. So your criticism is unfounded.

  9. Invigilator

    “Why would a land mammal leave the land, and go for a dip?”

    Probably to get some food, or escape a predator.

    Does this have to be repeated endlessly?

  10. H2O

    Invigilator : Just because the animal went into the water to escape a predator doesn’t mean it would stay in the water. Just because a seal goes on land occaisionally (escaping an orca for example), doesn’t mean it will evolve legs and go hunting for food on land.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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