Ancient whale tells tale of when baleen whales had teeth | Science News

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Ancient whale tells tale of when baleen whales had teeth

36-million-year-old fossil belonged to oldest discovered member of group that includes humpbacks

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12:10pm, May 11, 2017
Mystacodon skull

WHALE IN TRANSITION  The skull of Mystacodon, a 36-million-year-old whale found in Peru, is an early relative of today’s baleen whales. Its skull (shown here) has a flattened snout and a mouth full of teeth, which baleen whales later lost.

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,

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