Ancient whale species sheds new light on its modern relatives

Mar 22, 2012
This is an artist's conception of Bohaskaia monodontoides, foreground. Behind and above are a modern-day beluga whale and narwhal. Credit: Carl Buell

Beluga whales and narwhals live solely in the cold waters of the Arctic and sub-arctic. Smithsonian scientists, however, found that this may not have always been the case. They recently described a new species of toothed whale and close relative to today's belugas and narwhals that lived some 3-4 million years ago during the Pliocene in warm water regions.

Why and when its modern-day relatives evolved to live only in northern latitudes remains a mystery. The team's research was recently described in the .

This new species, Bohaskaia monodontoides, is known only from a nearly complete skull found in 1969 in a mine near Hampton, Va.

Since its discovery, the skull has been housed in the paleontology collections of the Smithsonian's . It was loosely identified as belonging to a beluga whale but it had never been closely studied.

Smithsonian scientists (left to right) Jorge Velez-Juarbe holds the skull of beluga whale; Dave Bohaska holds the skull of Bohaskaia monodontoides; and Nicholas Pyenson with the skull and tusk of a narwhal. They are standing in the marine mammal collections area of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Credit: Jorge Velez-Juarbe

In 2010, Jorge Velez-Juarbe, Smithsonian predoctoral fellow from Howard University, and Nicholas Pyenson, research geologist of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History began a close anatomical comparison of the fossil skull with the skeletons of belugas and narwhals in the Smithsonian's collection.

Their study confirmed that the fossil skull was that of a new toothed ―one that shared features of the snout and face with belugas and narwhals. The contained enough unique features however, to merit its placement as a new genus and species.

"Fossils referred to as belugas have been known from fragmentary bits, but skulls are so revealing because they contain so many informative features," Pyenson says. "We realized this skull was not something assignable to a beluga, and when we sat down, comparing the fossil side by side with the actual skulls of belugas and narwhals, we found it was a very different animal."

As Bohaskaia monodontoides was found in the temperate climate of Virginia, and a second extinct beluga-related toothed whale, Denebola branchycephala is known from a fossil found in Baja California, Velez-Juarbe and Pyenson surmise that the cold-climate adaptations of narwhals and beluga, which today live and breed only in the Arctic and sub-arctic, must have evolved only recently.

This is the fossil skull of a Bohaskaia monodontoides. Credit: Jorge Velez-Juarbe

"The fact is that living belugas and narwhals are found only in the Arctic and subarctic, yet the early fossil record of the monodontids extends well into temperate and tropical regions," Pyenson says. "For evidence of how and when the Arctic adaptations of belugas and narwhals arose we will have to look more recently in time."

The change may be "related to oceanographic changes during or after the Pliocene affecting the marine food chain," Velez-Juarbe says, "then competition or dietary preferences drove monodontids further north."

Explore further: Researchers create methylation maps of Neanderthals and Denisovans, compare them to modern humans

Related Stories

Multiple species of seacows once coexisted: study

Mar 08, 2012

Sirenians, or seacows, are a group of marine mammals that include manatees and dugongs; today, only one species of seacow is found in each world region. Smithsonian scientists have discovered that this was ...

Whales evolved biosonar to chase squid into the deep

Sep 05, 2007

Behind the sailor's lore of fearsome battles between sperm whale and giant squid lies a deep question of evolution: How did these leviathans develop the underwater sonar needed to chase and catch squid in ...

Bowhead whales using the Northwest Passage

Sep 22, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- According to a new study published in Biology Letters, the climate changes and melting of ice in the Northwest Passage are leading to the mingling of two bowhead whale populations that have b ...

Recommended for you

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

7 hours ago

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

Apr 17, 2014

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

Apr 17, 2014

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

bewertow
5 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2012
Get over it. Your silly fairy tales about zombie wizards are a load of crap. Stop trolling every single evolution/astronomy article with this garbage.

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.