How whales and dolphins evolved

Friday, September 25, 2009

WASHINGTON - A new research has shed new light on the origin and evolution of cetaceans like whales and dolphins.

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.

Because no one would ever link hippos and whales based on their appearance, fossil evidence became an important way to determine the precise evolutionary steps that cetacean ancestors took.

Traditionally, the origin of whales was linked to the mesonychids, an extinct group of carnivores that had singly-hoofed toes.

The recent discovery of Indohyus, a clearly water-adapted herbivore, complicates this picture because of ear bones similar to those of modern cetaceans, which are theorized to help the animal have heard better while under the water.

To tease apart different potential evolutionary histories (whether carnivory or water adaptations occurred first; the mesonychid or Indohyus relatedness ideas), Michelle Spaulding, lead author of the study, and colleagues, mapped the evolutionary relationships among more than 80 living and fossil taxa.

These taxa were scored for 661 morphological and behavioral characters (such as presence of hair or the shape of and ankle bone).

Forty-nine new DNA sequences from five nuclear genes were also added to the mix of more than 47,000 characters; both morphological and genetic data build on previous analyses by authors Maureen O’Leary of Stony Brook University and John Gatesy of University of California at Riverside.

In addition, Indohyus, carnivores (dogs and cats), and an archaic group of meat-eating mammals called creodonts were included.he team found that the least complex evolutionary tree places Indohyus and similar fossils close to whales, while mesonychids are more distantly related. Hippos remain the closest living relatives.

These results suggest that cetacean ancestors transitioned to water before becoming carnivorous, but that the meat-eating diet developed while these ancestors could still walk on land.According to O’Leary, “The earliest stem whale probably ate prey in water while still being able to walk on land. Indohyus has some adaptations for hearing under water but also ate plants, while Ambulocetus (a walking whale that lived about 50 million years ago) seems to have been carnivorous.” (ANI)

Filed under: Dolphin


R.A.R. Clouston
October 4, 2009: 8:14 am

I applaud your efforts to educate the public about whales and dolphins and I admire your disciplined, factual efforts to that end. However, I respectfully submit that heightened public interest and concern can be achieved by blending scientific fact with speculative fiction. Please visit my website or read my blog

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