Skeleton

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

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, dolphins and other toothed whales. But at some point during whale history, the ancestors of modern mysticetes replaced teeth with baleen, fibrous plates that filter out small bits of food from seawater like a giant sieve. Such a huge lifestyle change didn’t happen overnight, though. And the new find, dubbed Mystacodon selenensis, shows the start of that transition, its discoverers say.

Mystacodon largely fits in well with what scientists have predicted from analyzing other whales, says Mark Uhen, a paleobiologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “It fleshes out this transition, rather than being something wacky and crazy we never thought of.”

Mystacodon was unearthed in a Peruvian desert by…