If Ahab Only Knew: Cetaceans (Whales) Descend from Hoofed Mammals

By Spotts, Peter N. | The Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

If Ahab Only Knew: Cetaceans (Whales) Descend from Hoofed Mammals


Spotts, Peter N., The Christian Science Monitor


Rudyard Kipling delighted generations with his tale of how the whale got its throat. But he left a larger question: How did the ocean get its whale?

This week, two teams of paleontologists report finding fossils they say will help answer that question and settle a long debate over which animals today represent the whales' closest terrestrial relative.

Digging in Pakistan at sites some 500 miles apart, each team last year unearthed sets of fossils that they say bears on the kinship issue. One set, which researcher Johannes Thewissen's team uncovered and describes in today's issue of the journal Nature, is interpreted as a pair of hoofed land mammals roughly 50 million years old. The animals belonged to a group known as artiodactyls - hoofed mammals with an even number of toes. The specimens' ear structures match those of primitive whales and are unique to cetaceans, meat-eating marine mammals that include dolphins, porpoises, and narwhals.

The other fossil sets, discovered by a team led by University of Michigan paleontologist Philip Gingerich and described in tomorrow's edition of the journal Science, include two new species of primitive whales some 47 million years old. The whales' fore and aft flippers have ankle bones virtually identical to those of artiodactyls. …

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