Pygmy whale, thought long, long extinct found
Species is last living relative of ancient group of whale
A mysterious and elusive creature that rarely comes to shore, the pygmy right whale is the last living relative of an ancient group of whales long believed to be extinct, according to a new study. The group is believed to have gone extinct two million years ago.
The pygmy whale's arched, frown-like snout makes it look quite distinctive from other living whales.
"The living pygmy right whale is, if you like, a remnant, almost like a living fossil," Felix Marx, a paleontologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand says. "It's the last survivor of quite an ancient lineage that until now no one thought was around."
Quite unlike the other giants of the ocean, the pygmy whale grows to just 21 feet long and lives out in the open ocean. These marine mammals inhabit the Southern Hemisphere and have only been spotted at sea a few dozen times. Scientists know next to nothing about the species' habits or social structure.
The pygmy whale's arched, frown-like snout makes it look quite distinctive from other living whales. DNA analysis suggested pygmy right whales diverged from modern baleen whales such as the blue whale and the humpback whale between 17 million and 25 million years ago.
The snouts o the pygmy whales suggest they were more closely related to the family of whales that includes the bowhead whale. Yet there were no studies of fossils showing how the pygmy whale had evolved, Marx said.
In order to trace the lineage of the pygmy whale, and how it fit into the lineage of whales, Marx and his colleagues carefully analyzed the skull bones and other fossil fragments from pygmy right whales and several other ancient cetaceans.
After research, it was determined that the pygmy whale's skull most closely resembled that of an ancient family of whales called cetotheres that were thought to have gone extinct around two million years ago. Cetotheres emerged about 15 million years ago and once occupied oceans across the globe.
The findings help explain how pygmy whales evolved and may also help shed light on how these ancient "lost" whales lived. The new information is also a first step in reconstructing the ancient lineage all the way back to the point when all members of this group first diverged, Marx said.
© 2012, Distributed by NEWS CONSORTIUM.
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Keywords: Pygmy whale, extinct, lineage, whales, evolutionary, New Zealand
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