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UCLA biologists report how whales have changed over 35 million years
Date:5/28/2010

Whales are remarkably diverse, with 84 living species of dramatically different sizes and more than 400 other species that have gone extinct, including some that lived partly on land. Why are there so many whale species, with so much diversity in body size?

To answer that, UCLA evolutionary biologists and a colleague used molecular and computational techniques to look back 35 million years, when the ancestor of all living whales appeared, to analyze the evolutionary tempo of modern whale species and probe how fast whales changed their shape and body size. They have provided the first test of an old idea about why whales show such rich diversity.

"Whales represent the most spectacularly successful invasion of oceans by a mammalian lineage," said Michael Alfaro, UCLA assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and senior author of the new study, which was published this month in the early online edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society B and will appear at a later date in the journal's print edition. "They are often at the top of the food chain and are major players in whatever ecosystem they are in. They are the biggest animals that have ever lived. Cetaceans (which include whales, as well as dolphins and porpoises) are the mammals that can go to the deepest depths in the oceans.

"Biologists have debated whether some key evolutionary feature early in their history allowed whales to rapidly expand in number and form," Alfaro said. "Sonar, large brains, baleen (a structure found in the largest species for filtering small animals from sea water) and complex sociality have all been suggested as triggers for a diversification, or radiation, of this group that has been assumed to be rapid. However, the tempo the actual rate of the unfolding of the cetacean radiation has never been critically examined before. Our study is the first to test the idea that evolution in early whales was explosively fast."

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Contact: Stuart Wolpert
swolpert@support.ucla.edu
310-206-0511
University of California - Los Angeles
Source:Eurekalert

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