Cetotheres were a group of small baleen whales, one of three major lineages of these cetaceans alongside the rorquals and the right whales. They first appeared in the fossil record in the mid-Miocene, about 14 million years ago (but are estimated to have actually originated 10-15 million years earlier), and disappeared during the Pleistocene about 2 million years ago.
First recognized in the mid-19th century, for a long time the cetotheres were used as a wastebasket for all fossil baleen whales that didn’t clearly fit into any modern whale families. By the start of the 21st century nearly 30 different genera representing numerous different species were all lumped into the group – and the genus Cetotherium was another wastebasket in itself with at least 12 assigned species, many of which were based on fragmentary or dubious remains.
This was finally cleaned up in the 2000s, when a revision of the cetotheres cut the group down to just 6 genera. Since then a handful of additional new genera and species have been named, and while a few polyphyleticCetotherium species may still need tidying up the cetotheres have overall gone from being a total taxonomic mess to actually being one of the best studied groups of fossil baleen whales.
Their exact evolutionary relationships with each other are still in flux, but the most surprising discovery from the improved understanding of these ancient whales is that they might not be extinct after all.
At this point it seems fairly likely that the pygmy right whale really is either the last surviving representative of the cetothere lineage, or at least is a very close evolutionary “cousin” (a “cetotherioid”) closer related to them than to any other modern baleen whales.
Unlike modern baleen whales it was small, about the size of a modern porpoise at around 2m long (6’6″), and the wear on its multi-cusped teeth suggest it was a predator taking slicing bites of fish – possibly using suction-assisted feeding like its close relatives the aetiocetids.
Its fossilized remains are also a rare example of an ancient whale fall, with characteristic bore holes in its bones from Osedax worms.
The earliest baleen whales didn’t actually have any baleen plates in their mouths, and the evolutionary origin of these unique filter-feeding structures is still poorly understood.
It was thought to have been a fairly simple linear process from toothed ancestors to a mix of teeth and baleen and then to fully toothless with just baleen, but more recent discoveries have begun to cast doubt on that idea. The teeth of ancestral baleen whales weren’t suited to filter-feeding at all, instead still being adapted for predatory piercing and chewing – actions which would have been constantly interfering with and damaging any proto-baleen forming alongside them, and making it seem much more unlikely that there would have ever been a transitional form that had both teeth and baleen at the same time.
But then how did baleen whales get their baleen?
Maiabalaena nesbittae here provides a possible solution. Discovered in Oregon, USA, this early baleen whale dates to the early Oligocene, around 33 million years ago, and compared to most of its modern relatives it was comparatively tiny, only about 4.6m long (15′).
And it had no teeth at all, but possibly also no baleen.
Baleen rarely fossilizes, so it’s unclear whether Maiabalaena actually had any or not, but the shape of its skull suggests it probably didn’t – it lacked the broad thickened upper jaw associated with supporting racks of baleen plates. It instead seems to have been adapted for suction feeding similar to modern belugas and beaked whales, using muscular cheeks and tongue to manipulate water pressure and pull small prey like fish and squid straight into its mouth.
Since it lived at a time when the Antarctic Circumpolar Current was forming and cooling the oceans, changing ecosystems and prey availability, it may represent a previously unknown stage in baleen whale evolution – a point when they’d moved towards specializing for suction feeding and lost their teeth entirely, before transitioning again over to filter-feeding with baleen in a completely separate evolutionary development a few million years later.
It had an unusually long flattened snout, with its nostrils further forward than modern whales, and only had baleen in the back half of its mouth – an interesting comparison to the intermixed teeth-and-baleen of some other early mysticetes. It’s not clear whether it had any vestigial teeth in the front of its jaws, although a single possible tooth has been found associated with its close relative Tokarahia.
The rather delicate nature of Waharoa’s jawbones suggests it wasn’t capable of rapid lunges at swarms of its small prey, instead probably using slow-cruising surface skim-feeding similar to modern right whales.