Dwarf whale survived into Ice Age

i found this article interesting because through my classes toward getting my degree i was able to take a paleontology/ paleobiology class and really enjoyed it, and when i saw this article about research that has been used to determine that a certain type of whale that was thought to have died off just before the ice age actually survived much longer than first thought.   hope others find this kind of stuff interesting.

April 5, 2013 – Herpetocetus, a baleen whale that was thought to have gone extinct 3,000,000 years ago, actually survived into the Ice Age (Pleistocene), according to recent research. It was the last survivor of the primitive baleen whale family called cetotheres. The new study from New Zealand’s University of Otago shows this whale avoided extinction far longer than previously thought.

Otago geologist Robert Boessenecker has reports that a fossil, found in northern California, of the 4-5 meter long Herpetocetus, may be as young as 700,000 years old.

Boessenecker says the previously youngest-known fossils of this whale were from the pre-Ice Age Pliocene epoch; approximately 3 million years ago, a time before many modern marine mammals appeared. Baleen whales of this type were most common much earlier, about 10-15 million years ago.

“That this whale survived the great climatic and ecological upheavals of the Ice Age and almost into the modern era is very surprising as nearly all fossil marine mammals found after the end of the Pliocene appear identical to modern species.

“Other baleen whales underwent extreme body size increases in response to the new environment, but this dwarf whale must have still had a niche to inhabit which has only recently disappeared,” he says.

The find indicates that the emergence of the modern marine mammals during the Ice Age may have happened more gradually than has been supposed, he says.

The discovery also lends indirect support to a hypothesis about the modern pygmy right whale (Caperea marginata) recently published by Mr Boessenecker’s colleagues Professor Ewan Fordyce and Dr Felix Marx. The pair posited that this enigmatic Southern Ocean whale is not a true right whale but actually a member of the cetothere family and one of the closest relatives of Herpetocetus.

“If their hypothesis is correct, this latest discovery indicates that other close relatives of the pygmy right whale nearly survived to modern times within the Northern Hemisphere.

“In this light, Herpetocetus can be viewed as a Northern Hemisphere equivalent of the pygmy right whale: both are small-bodied with peculiar anatomy, possibly closely related, with feeding habits that are seemingly divergent from other baleen whales.”

All baleen whales lack teeth and instead use baleen to strain small prey like krill and fish from seawater. Many whales, such as humpback and blue whales, gulp enormous amounts of water during lunges, while others such as gray whales filter prey from mud on the seafloor.

Chris Matter

2 thoughts on “Dwarf whale survived into Ice Age”

  1. Hi there Chris,

    Glad you enjoyed the article – if you’d like a pdf of my published research article, email me at boessenecker [at] gmail.com. I was a student in your position only about five years ago. Best regards, Robert Boessenecker

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