36-million-year-old fossil belonged to oldest discovered member of group that includes humpbacks
O. Lambert et al/Current Biology 2017
A 36-million-year-old fossil skeleton is revealing a critical moment in the history of baleen whales: what happened when the ancestors of these modern-day filter feeders first began to distinguish themselves from their toothy, predatory predecessors. The fossil is the oldest known mysticete, a group that includes baleen whales, such as humpbacks, researchers report in the May 22 Current Biology.
Scientists have made predictions about what the first mysticetes might have looked like, but until now, haven’t had much fossil evidence to back up those ideas, says Nicholas Pyenson, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. “Here, we have something we’ve been waiting for: a really old baleen whale ancestor.”
The earliest whales were predators with sharp teeth — a legacy carried on by today’s orcas,