Two newly described fossil whales--a pregnant female and a male of the same species--reveal how primitive whales gave birth and provide new insights into how whales made the transition from land to sea.
The 47.5 million-year-old fossils, discovered in Pakistan in 2000 and 2004, are described in a paper published Feb. 4, 2009, in the online journal PLoS.
"This stunning discovery reinforces the belief that modern cetaceans originated from terrestrial ancestors," said H. Richard Lane, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research.
Paleontologist Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan, who led the team that made the discoveries, was at first perplexed by adult female and fetal bones found together.
"When we first saw the small teeth, we thought we were dealing with a small adult whale, but then we continued to expose the specimen and found ribs that seemed too large to go with those teeth," Gingerich said. "By the end of the day, we realized we had found a female whale with a fetus."
It is the first discovery of a fetal skeleton of an extinct whale in the group known as Archaeoceti, and the find represents a new species dubbed Maiacetus inuus. (Maiacetus means "mother whale," and Inuus was a Roman fertility god.)
The fetus is positioned for head-first delivery, like land mammals but unlike modern whales, indicating that these whales still gave birth on land.
Another clue to the whales' lifestyle is the well-developed set of teeth in the fetus, suggesting that Maiacetus newborns were equipped to fend for themselves, rather than being helpless in early life.
The 8.5-foot-long male specimen, collected four years later from the same fossil beds, shares characteristic anatomical features with the female of the species, but its virtually complete skeleton is 12 percent larger overall, and its canine teeth 20 percent larger.
|Contact: Cheryl Dybas|
National Science Foundation