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New fossil suggests echolocation evolved early in whales

Intricate 27-million-year-old inner ear bones show features of high-frequency hearing

1:27pm, August 5, 2016
Echovenator sandersi

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?  The skull of an ancient whale unearthed in South Carolina adds to evidence that the ancestors of modern toothed whales, such as orcas and dolphins, had high-frequency hearing.

A roughly 27-million-year-old fossilized skull echoes growing evidence that ancient whales could navigate using high-frequency sound.

Discovered over a decade ago in a drainage ditch by an amateur fossil hunter on the South Carolina coast, the skull belongs to an early toothed whale. The fossil is so well-preserved that it includes rare inner ear bones similar to those found in modern whales and dolphins. Inspired by the Latin for “echo hunter,” scientists have now named the ancient whale Echovenator sandersi.

“It suggests that the earliest toothed whales could hear high-frequency sounds,” which is essential for echolocation, says Morgan Churchill, an anatomist at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. Churchill and his colleagues describe the specimen online August 4 in Current Biology.

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