Despite commonly being called “killer whales” modern orcas are actually the largest living members of the oceanic dolphin family. Their ancestors are thought to have diverged from other dolphins between 10 and 5 million years ago – and surprisingly their closest relatives are the much smaller snubfin dolphins found in Australasia.
Living during the Pliocene (5-2 mya) in the Mediterranean, Orcinus citoniensis was an early member of the orca lineage, and was probably a transitional form between their early dolphin ancestors and the modern Orcinus orca.
It was half the size of modern orcas, at about 4m long (~13′). While it had a higher tooth count than its living relatives its teeth were also proportionally smaller, suggesting it wasn’t specialized for tackling large prey and probably fed mainly on fish and squid.
Waharoa ruwhenua, a whale from the Late Oligocene of New Zealand (~27-25 mya). Part of an early branch of the baleen whale lineage, it’s known from partial remains of an adult and a couple of juveniles and would have reached a full size of about 6m long (19′8″).
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.
Inermorostrum xenops, a recently-named ancient cetacean!
Living about 30 million years ago in shallow coastal waters around the southeast USA, in what is now South Carolina, it was a member of one of the very earliest groups of toothed whales known as the xenorophids. Although only very distantly related to modern forms, xenorophids show evidence of being able to echolocate, suggesting the ability was probably ancestral to all toothed whales.
Estimated to have measured about 1m long (3′3″), Inermorostrum had a very short downturned snout and was completely toothless – specialized adaptations for suction feeding on small soft-bodied creatures on the seafloor.
Unusually for a toothed whale it also had proportionally large infraorbital foramina, openings in the bones of its snout for blood vessels and nerves to pass through. This suggests the presence of well-developed fleshy lips and possibly whiskers (as illustrated here), or maybe even an electroreceptive sense similar to some modern dolphins.
Ambulocetus natans, the Eocene “walking whale” – who might not actually have been able to walk at all!
A study published in 2016 suggests this early cetacean was actually fully aquatic and unable to support its own weight on land. So here’s an updated version compared to the Ambulocetus I did a couple of years ago.
Globicetus hiberus, a 5m long (16′4″) beaked whale from the Atlantic coast of Portugal and Spain. Its fossils can’t be easily dated since they were fished up from the seafloor, but it was probably around Early-to-Mid Miocene in age (~20-14 mya).
Its skull sported an odd bony sphere at the base of its snout, just in front of the melon, which appears to have been larger and more prominent in males than in females. Many modern beaked whales also have sexually dimorphic crests, ridges, and domes in their skulls, and these structures may function as sort of “internal antlers” – a display structure the whales can “see” via echolocation that signals their size, strength, and health to each other.