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Scientists discover a new sensory organ in the chin of baleen whales
Date:5/25/2012

ause that soft structure is pinched by the tips of the jaws, and deforms through the course of a lunge," said Nicholas Pyenson, paleobiologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and lead author of the research. "This deformation is registered by the nerves inside the organ, informing the gulping whale about its gigantic jaws, which must close before prey escape. This finding answers several outstanding theoretical questions and puzzling field data that suggest rorquals actively control their lunge, rather than letting their mouths passively inflate like a parachute."

Fossil records show that the bottom jaw of baleen whales has been unfused, or separated, at its tip since the late Oligocene epoch (23-28 million years ago). Despite the long expanse of time to the present, this organ represents an evolutionary novelty for rorqual whales, based on its absence in all other modern species of baleen whale, such as gray and right whales. This organ has a fundamental role in one of the most extreme feeding methods in aquatic vertebrates, which facilitated the evolution of the largest vertebrates ever.

Because lunge feeding is a critical part of maintaining their large body size―blue whales can grow to more than 100 feet in length and weigh more than 150 tons―this discovery helps illuminate the set of anatomical and behavioral innovations that happened in evolutionary history of rorquals that allowed them to become oceanic giants. "It is a supreme irony," Pyenson said, "that even after several decades of whaling where scientists had the opportunity to observe hundreds of thousands of whale carcasses, we are still only beginning to understand the anatomy of the largest ocean predators of all time."


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Contact: John Gibbons
gibbonsjp@si.edi
202-633-5187
Smithsonian
Source:Eurekalert  

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