“Spying on Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures” –Scientists Pursue Undiscovered Species of Whales Swimming Below Since the Eocene

 

“Once upon a time—in the Eocene epoch—whales were quadrupeds. They walked on land. One primitive cetacean ancestor, Pakicetus, is thought to have been a canine-size, shore-living creature with a doggy tail and clawed paws. It probably had fur (hair typically fails to fossilize, so on this point there is debate). With its tiny, wide-set eyes, Pakicetus displays a sheepish expression in many artists’ depictions—as if ashamed at having gone extinct.”

Today’s Top Science Headline: Fast forward continues Rebecca Giggs in The Atlantic : Fossilized cetaceans contained in the elemental hardscape of the Atacama Desert, in South America, are laser-scanned—permitting paleontologists to view, on their screens, the orientation of overlapping skeletons and small facets of fragile structures. Meticulous data-point renderings of whale bones in museum collections, and of bones that prove too brittle to transport from sites of discovery, are relayed across the globe to 3-D printers.

Great white whales surge from machines via processes that compress the biggest animal bodies ever to populate the planet into STL files. During the 19th century, our profoundly visceral relationship with whales spawned dreams of sea monsters. Now cetaceans give rise to specters that are digital.”

As far as researchers are aware, more than 80 species of cetacean inhabit modern-day oceans and estuaries. But the seas are deep and resist surveillance. It is possible that yet more whales swim below, awaiting discovery. Genetic analysis is recategorizing misidentified remains: Hitherto unknown cetaceans are being discovered in bone and tissue samples. The geologic record that Nick Pyenson, a paleobiologist and the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian, sets out to explore documents some 600 prehistoric whale species that no longer exist, and reveals evidence of bygone eras during which whale ancestors occupied a wide range of ecological niches worldwide. Many of the bones that prove pivotal to verifying cetacean evolution are as small as tokens from a board game.

Had you been alive in the early 19th century and in want of a sea monster, you might have summoned one via the apparatus of a dead whale. Take a colossal rib, a narwhal’s spiral tusk, a gray whale’s eyeballs, bristles of baleen stripped from a humpback’s jaw or armfuls of its spooling tongue—how disquieting these discards from the whaling industry must have appeared to those who had never seen a whale whole, in the flesh. Scraps retrieved from the decks of harpoon ships, or sold by savvy beachcombers, could be credible props to mobilize a mythical beast. The rest relied on a story.

Swindlers in dim backstreets and taverns learned to articulate whale leftovers as parts of stranger animals yet: Here were bits of mermaid, ocean centipede, sea swine, saltwater salamander, and serpent; remnants of turtles as large as houses and of aquatic owls once believed to have ambushed boats in the Northern Hemisphere. Before a spellbound audience, a sperm whale’s penis (as pale and hefty as daikon, but dexterous) readily transformed into a segment of a kraken’s mortifying tentacle.

We may now be a modern and scientific people, but standing beneath a whale skeleton in a city museum, who isn’t still drawn into a reverie of wonder and speculation? How whopping were those tail flukes, long since decomposed? How might it feel to be alive on that scale—to experience the world in such stupendous dimensions of sensation and action? What dark, red secrets lie in the cubicles of a whale’s heart?

Pyenson , knows well the tug of whale remains on the imagination. In his debut book, Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures, Pyenson sets out to place whales within a natural history of ancient environments, and to predict how whale species will respond to burgeoning ecological pressures. The author’s examination of the anatomy of present-day cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) takes us back to the evolutionary origins of these ocean-borne mammals. What roamed then proves to be an astounding array of real chimera, as evocative as any marine monster of myth or fiction.

Pyenson describes another protowhale that appears to have stalled mid-phase between a prodigious crocodile and a leopard seal: Basilosaurus had a bite force that, pound for pound, exceeded that of any other known creature. It retained the diminutive hind limbs its forebears had deployed to kick off from their terrestrial habitat and rummage in shallow reefs, though Basilosaurus occupied open waters, where it is believed to have hunted other prehistoric whales. (A few years ago, a Basilosaurus skeleton with a second whale inside it was exhumed from the floor of an Egyptian valley, a kind of ossified cetacean turducken.) Basilosaurus bones can still be found in the southern United States. (Basilosaurus is the official state fossil of Alabama.) Paleontologists have sometimes discovered their vertebrae, not lodged in sedimentary rock or tumbling from eroded riverbanks but repurposed as andirons in fireplaces, foundation stones in buildings, or parts of furniture. Basilosaurus is a sea monster we’ve unknowingly domesticated.

Forty million years ago lived whales that looked rather like today’s iguanas, albeit larger. Others appeared more fishy. Some resembled an elongated hippo whose body tapered into the snickering head of an oversize ferret. By the time of Odobenocetops, the walrus-faced cetacean of the Miocene epoch, the course of evolution had streamlined whales’ bodies and dispensed with the back legs. Odobenocetops had two asymmetrical tusks protruding downward from its squashy muzzle. The right tusk grew twice as long as the left for reasons unknown (perhaps it had to do with its diet of mollusks, or with courtship displays the males performed). To the 21st-century viewer, these tusks give Odobenocetops the lopsided charm of an oracular character in a Hayao Miyazaki film.

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Image credit: With thanks to Jean-Luc Bozzoli

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