Australian fossil unlocks secrets to the origin of whales

Dec 22, 2009

Museum Victoria palaeobiologist Dr Erich Fitzgerald has made new groundbreaking discoveries into the origin of baleen whales, based on a 25 million year old fossil found near Torquay in Victoria.

Dr Fitzgerald's study, which is published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, is centred on Mammalodon colliveri, a primitive toothed baleen whale, one of a group of whales that includes the largest animal ever to have lived, the . Although Mammalodon was discovered in 1932 and named in 1939, it has remained relatively unknown until now.

"Through study of Mammalodon, I hypothesise that it was a bottom-feeding mud-sucker that may have used its tongue and short, blunt snout to suck small prey from sand and mud on the . This indicates early and varied experimentation in the evolution of baleen whales", explained Dr Fitzgerald.

The research conducted by Dr Fitzgerald supports Charles Darwin's speculation in The Origin of Species, that some of the earliest baleen whales may have been suction feeders, and that their mud grubbing served as a precursor to the filter feeding of today's giants of the deep.

Although Mammalodon had a total body length of about 3 metres, it was a bizarre early offshoot from the lineage leading to the 30 metre long blue whale. The new research shows that Mammalodon is a dwarf, having evolved into a relatively tiny form from larger ancestors.

Mammalodon belongs to the same family as Janjucetus hunderi, fossils of which were also found in 25 million year old Oligocene rocks near Torquay in Victoria. This family is unique to south east Australia, their fossils only being discovered in Victoria. "Clearly the seas off southern Australia were a cradle for the evolution of a variety of tiny, weird whales that seem to have lived nowhere else", said Dr Fitzgerald.

Explore further: Unique entry complex discovered at Herodian Hilltop Palace

More information: Dr Erich Fitzgerald's paper will be available online from December 22 at doi.wiley.com/10.1111/j.1096-3642.2009.00572.x

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Humpback whales have brain cells also found in humans

Nov 27, 2006

Cetaceans, the group of marine mammals that includes whales and dolphins, have demonstrated remarkable auditory and communicative abilities, as well as complex social behaviors. A new study published online November 27, 2006 ...

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 ...

Recommended for you

Ancient clay seals may shed light on biblical era

Dec 20, 2014

Impressions from ancient clay seals found at a small site in Israel east of Gaza are signs of government in an area thought to be entirely rural during the 10th century B.C., says Mississippi State University archaeologist ...

Digging up the 'Spanish Vikings'

Dec 19, 2014

The fearsome reputation of the Vikings has made them the subject of countless exhibitions, books and films - however, surprisingly little is known about their more southerly exploits in Spain.

Short-necked Triassic marine reptile discovered in China

Dec 17, 2014

A new species of short-necked marine reptile from the Triassic period has been discovered in China, according to a study published December 17, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xiao-hong Chen f ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.