National Geographic Daily News
A humpback whale in the Dominican Republic.

Four new species of ancient whales were related to modern baleen whales, such as this humpback.

Photograph by Mauricio Handler, National Geographic

A fossilized whale tooth.

Teeth (upper left side of jaw) from Morawanocetus. Photograph courtesy Meredith A. Rivin

Jane J. Lee in Boston

National Geographic News

Published February 19, 2013

The ancestors of modern baleen whales—including the ancient forbears of blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) and humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae)—just got four new relatives.

Scientists announced Sunday that they have discovered the new species thanks in large part to a construction crew in southern California.

The researchers discovered 11 whale species at the site, said Meredith Rivin, a paleontologist at California State University in Fullerton, including the four new species.

The newly identified ancient animals belong to the group including baleen whales, named for the frayed blades of fingernail-like material hanging down from the roof of their mouths, which they use to strain seawater for food.

The four new species of ancient baleen whales had teeth—unlike their current relatives—and are not direct ancestors to modern baleen whales, said Rivin. They represent a transitional step and are related to the animals that would eventually give rise to the whales we know today.

During work on a new road through Laguna Canyon (map) near Los Angeles in 2000, construction crews uncovered an outcrop littered with whale fossils around 17 to 19 million years old.

By that time, Rivin said, toothed baleen whales "were supposed to have been extinct for about five million years or so, and we got a huge diversity of them."

Not only were they not extinct, she said, but it appears that the lineage was doing well at the time.

Before these finds, there weren't any examples of toothed baleen whales from around the world during this time period, called the early Miocene, said Rivin.

Paleontologists accompanying the Southern California crew eventually uncovered hundreds of whale bones and over 30 whale skulls over a five-year period.

Three of the new species are relatively small, about the size of modern-day dolphins, said Rivin.

One of the larger species, an as yet unnamed 30-foot (nine-meter) whale is similar to another ancient whale species, Llanocetus denticrenatus, which was thought to have gone extinct 35 million years ago. (Read about a mud-grubbing toothed baleen whale.)

Rivin discussed the newly discovered species of ancient toothed baleen whales at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.

She plans to publish papers on three of the four toothed baleen whale species later this year.

The fourth one she's still trying to extract fully from the rock, although she's been able to uncover enough to know that this whale is unlike anything she's ever seen before. Its teeth have very long roots that bulge up from the bone. Rivin plans to keep chipping away at the rock surrounding the fossil until she can study the entire specimen.

Correction: An earlier version said that the 30-foot ancient whale was in the genus Morawanocetus, but it does not yet have a name.

2 comments
sandy jensen
sandy jensen

hi well i do remember one time when fishing and i was busting to go toilet i had no op but to go over the side of the boat it felt like some  thing was watching me so when i turned around there was a great white shark only 1 meter away from me with its mouth opened a little well heck did i finish up my buisness in a hurry and as long as i live i will never forget that moment and incounter an i won;t even swim in the sea but at least i live to tell my story .another day befor that happend i was standing in sea water just letting the waves cover my ankles when i felt some thing latch onto my big toe dam it was a crab holding onto my toe so i stood there shaking my foot like mad to get it off well it let go and thats story;s but i have never been in the water again.

Share

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

See more innovators »

Latest News Video

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »