Fearsome Toothed Whale Fossil Found in Oz

Fossilized Janjucetus hunderiThe fossil studied by Erich M. G. Fitzgerald of the School of Geosciences at Monash University, Clayton, Victoria in Australia is surprising to scientist since it belongs to the family of baleen whales. Modern day baleen whale, the humpback and blue whale for example, are all placid, plankton eaters, which means that they do not have huge teeth that are used to eat prey. In fact, some of the fossil whales had teeth, but were inferred to have fed in a similar manner to living whales. The following excerpt from Fitzgerald’s paper [1] explains their conclusion on the subject:

It thus refutes the notions that all stem mysticetes were filter-feeders, and that the origins and initial radiation of mysticetes was linked to the evolution of filter-feeding. Mysticetes evidently radiated into a variety of disparate forms and feeding ecologies before the evolution of baleen or filterfeeding.

This fossil represents a previously unknown species, named after its teenage finder Staumn Hunter, who noticed it in an exposed boulder while surfing in 1997. The species is believed to have lived about 9 to 25 million years ago after the last common ancestor of the toothed and baleen whales. As I pointed out earlier, the previously found fossil whales did not elucidate the origins and early evolution of baleen whales from their lack of a different manner of feeding. So transitional fossils like this one found in Australia can usually explain many hypotheses scientists have on the subject. This one is no exception.

The phylogenetic context of the new whale indicates that basal mysticetes were macrophagous predators that did not employ filter-feeding or echolocation, and that the evolution of characters associated with bulk filter-feeding was gradual.

Finds like these also present scientists with new hypotheses and new questions to be resolved. For example, how did whales evolve drastically different eating habits more than 34 million years ago ? One thing is for sure, this find will clearly make it into the (children) books on the dangerous and mystical monsters of the Pre-historic times.

Age and Paleontogical Information on the Fossil
  • ERA: Cenozoic
  • PERIOD: Tertiary
  • EPOCH: Oligocene
  • AGE: 23.8 to 33.7 Million Years Ago
Related Articles
  • [1] Fitzgerald, E.M.G. (2006) A bizarre new toothed mysticete (Cetacea) from Australia and the early evolution of baleen whales, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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