Ninoziphius

Ninoziphius platyrostris was an early beaked whale that lived during the late Miocene (~6 million years ago) in warm coastal waters covering what is now southwestern Peru. Its ancestors appear to have branched off from all other beaked whales very early in the group’s history, indicating a “ghost lineage” going back to at least 17 million years ago.

About 4.4m long (~14’5″), it was less specialized for suction feeding and deep diving than modern beaked whales. Also unlike most modern species its jaws were lined with numerous interlocking teeth, with heavy wear suggesting it may have hunted close to the seafloor, where disturbed sand and grit would have regularly ended up in its mouth along with its prey and steadily ground down its teeth during its lifetime.

Males had a pair of stout tusks at the tip of their upward-curving lower jaw, with possibly a second smaller set of tusks behind them, which were probably used for fighting each other like in modern beaked whales.

Its shallow water habitat and more abrasive diet suggest Ninoziphius’ lifestyle was much more like modern dolphins than modern beaked whales, and other early beaked whales like Messapicetus similarly seem to have occupied dolphin-like ecological niches.

These dolphin-like forms disappeared around the same time that true dolphins began to diversify, possibly struggling to compete for the same food sources, while other beaked whales that had begun to specialize for deep sea diving survived and thrived. Interestingly this ecological shift seems to have happened twice, in two separate beaked whale lineages – although only one of them still survives today – with bizarre bony “internal antlers” even independently evolving in both groups.

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Perucetus

While last week’s Tutcetus was the smallest known basilosaurid whale, another recently-announced member of that group was almost the complete opposite.

Perucetus colossus was a chonker. An absolute unit of a whale.

Living during the Eocene (~38 million years ago) in shallow marine waters covering what is now the coast of Peru, this ancient whale is known from several vertebrae, ribs, and parts of its pelvis. As a result its full size is uncertain, but based on the proportions of other basilosaurids it was probably somewhere around 17-20m long (~56′-66′) – similar in length to the larger specimens of Basilosaurus.

However, it had much thicker denser bones, even more so than those of its close relative Antaecetus, suggesting that its full body mass was much higher than the rather slender Basilosaurus – and possibly heavier than even modern blue whales despite being shorter in overall length.

Perucetus’ thickened vertebrae were also fairly inflexible in most directions, indicating it was a sirenian-like slow swimmer with limited maneuverability – but it did have a surprisingly good ability to bend its body downwards. Without skull material it’s unclear what its diet was like, but it may have been a suction-feeder hoovering up seafloor prey like modern grey whales or walruses.

I’ve reconstructed it here with a speculative bristly fleshy downturned snout inspired by the weird skull of Makaracetus, an earlier whale that may have also been a walrus-like bottom-feeder.

Tutcetus

Tutcetus rayanensis was a whale that lived in warm shallow tropical seas covering what is now Egypt during the Eocene, about 41 million years ago.

It was an early member of the “basilosaurids“, a grouping made up of multiple early cetacean lineages (an “evolutionary grade“) representing some of the first fully aquatic forms. Like other members of this group it probably would have had a rather long and slender body shape – but unlike most of its relatives Tutcetus was comparatively tiny, estimated to only have been around 2.5m long (~8’2″).

The fusion of the skull bones in the one known fossil specimen indicate it was almost fully grown at the time of its death, and the pattern of tooth replacement suggests this small basilosaurid species matured very rapidly – a sort of “live fast, die young” life strategy.

Tutcetus’ small size and early demise also inspired its genus name, with “Tut” referencing the teenage Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Nihohae

Nihohae matakoi was a dolphin that lived in the coastal waters around what is now Aotearoa New Zealand during the late Oligocene, about 25 million years ago. Part of a group known as waipatiids, it was much closer related to modern South Asian river dolphins than to modern oceanic dolphins.

Around 2m long (6’6″), it had unusually long tusk-like teeth at the front of its jaws, splaying out almost horizontally forwards and to the sides.

These teeth lay too flat to effectively interlock as a “fish trap”, and their fairly delicate structure and lack of wear marks suggests they also weren’t used for piercing large prey, sifting through gritty sediment, defending against predators, or for fighting each other. But Nihohae did have a highly flexible neck and the ability to quickly snap its jaws from side to side – although with a relatively weak bite force, suggesting it was primarily tackling small soft-bodied prey that could be easily swallowed whole.

Overall its feeding ecology seems to have been similar to modern sawfish, stunning prey such as squid with rapid slashing swipes of its jaws.

Strange Symmetries #22: The Whalerus And The Twisted Tusks

Mammalian tusks usually grow in symmetrical pairs with only minor developmental asymmetry, but a few species have evolved much more uneven arrangements.

A colored line drawing of the extinct toothed whale Odobenocetops. Its body is beluga-like but it has a face more like a walrus than a whale, with a big fleshy bristly upper lip and a pair of protruding tusks. The right side tusk is much longer than the left. It's depicted with a mottled brown and white color scheme.
Odobenocetops peruvianus

Odobenocetops peruvianus was a small toothed whale that lived during the Miocene, about 7-3 million years ago, in shallow coastal waters around what is now Peru. Around 3m long (~10′), it was a highly unusual cetacean with binocular vision, a vestigial melon, muscular lips, and a pair of tusks – features convergent with walruses that suggest it had a similar lifestyle suction-feeding on seafloor molluscs and crustaceans.

In males the right tusk was much more elongated than the left, measuring around 50cm long (~1’8″) in this species and up to 1.35m (4’5″) in the closely related Odobenocetops leptodon. Since these teeth were quite fragile they probably weren’t used for any sort of combat, and they may have instead served more of a visual display function.

And despite being closer related to modern narwhals and belugas than to other toothed whales, Odobenocetops’ long right-sided asymmetric tusks actually seem to have evolved completely independently from the iconic left-sided asymmetric spiral tusks of narwhals.

An edited meme image using screenshots of Dr. Doofenshmirtz from "Phineas and Ferb". The text reads: "If I had a nickel for every time whales evolved asymmetric tusks, I'd have two nickels. Which isn't a lot, but it's weird that it happened twice."

A colored line drawing of an extinct woolly mammoth. It's an elephant-like animal covered in a thick coat of brownish hair, with a high domed forehead, small ears, and long curving tusks. The tusks are noticeably asymmetrical, one curving more downwards than the other.
Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)

The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) lived across Eurasia and North America during the last ice age, mostly from the Pleistocene about 400,000 years ago to the early Holocene about 10,000 years ago – altohugh a few relict populations survived until around 4,000 years ago in isolated areas of Alaska, Siberia, and eastern Russia.

Around 3m tall at the shoulder (~10ft), these hairy proboscideans had very long curving tusks that were used for digging out vegetation from under snow and ice, scraping bark from trees, and for fighting.

The tusks showed a lot of variation in their curvature, and were often rather asymmetrical, a condition also seen in the closely related Columbian mammoth. Like modern elephants mammoths may have also favored using one side over the other for certain tasks, which over their lifetimes could result in uneven wear exaggerating the natural asymmetry even more.

Strange Symmetries #19: Wonky Whales

Toothed whales – the branch of cetaceans that includes modern dolphins, porpoises, beaked whales, and sperm whales – have surprisingly asymmetrical skulls, with some of the bones skewed to one side and just the left nostril forming their blowhole.

Some of the most obvious external manifestation of this lopsidedness can be seen in sperm whales, which have their blowhole at the front left side of their head, and in male narwhals, which usually have a single left-side tusk.

This sort of asymmetry first appeared in the skulls of early toothed whales around 30 million years ago. And since the highest amounts of wonkiness have gone on to develop in lineages that hunt in dark, cluttered, or murky waters, this suggests that the trait is somehow linked to the evolution of complex echolocation.

Some ancient members of the river dolphin lineage also had some additional unusual asymmetry, sometimes having slightly sideways-bending snouts.

Ensidelphis riveroi was one of the weirdest of these, living around the coasts of what is now Peru during the Miocene, about 19 million years ago. Around 3m long (~10′), it had a very long narrow toothy snout that curved distinctly off to the right along its length.

A sketch showing Ensidelphis' bizarre side-curving snout. A hypothetical straight snout is shown outlined in blue, while the actual curvature is overlaid in red.
Expectation vs reality

It’s not clear what the function of this bend was, or even if the only known skull actually represents the normal condition for this species. But Ensidelphis’ bendy snoot might have been used to probe around in muddy seafloor sediment or to extract prey from crevices, possibly like an underwater version of the modern wrybill.

Antaecetus

Antaecetus aithai was an early whale that lived during the late Eocene (~40 million years ago) in what is now Morocco, at a time when northern Africa was covered by a warm shallow sea.

It was part of the “basilosaurids“, some of the first fully aquatic cetaceans – traditionally considered to be a single defined group, but more recently found to be more of an “evolutionary grade” of multiple early whale lineages – and much like Basilosaurus it had elongated back vertebrae that would have given it a very long slender body shape.

Antaecetus also had a proportionally smaller head and smaller teeth than other basilosaurids, along with much denser bones and a stiffer spine that would have made it a rather slow swimmer with reduced maneuverability. It was also fairly small overall compared to most of its relatives, probably around 6m long (~20′).

It was probably a slow-moving coastal water animal somewhat like modern sirenians – except unlike manatees and dugongs it was carnivorous. Its relatively delicate teeth suggest it was feeding on soft-bodied prey like cephalodpods, and with its lack of speed it must have been some sort of ambush predator, waiting around for potential prey to come within striking range.

Casatia

Modern beluga whales and narwhals are the only living representatives of the monodontid lineage, found only in cold Arctic and sub-Arctic waters. But this whale family actually first evolved in much warmer climates – and some of them were downright tropical.

Casatia thermophila lived about 5 million years ago during the early Pliocene, in the Mediterranean Sea around Tuscany, Italy. Although known only from a couple of partial skulls and a few vertebrae it was probably similar in size to its modern relatives, around 5m long (16’4″).

It seems to have had a larger number of functional teeth than modern monodontids, and probably didn’t suction feed like its modern close relatives. Instead it may have fed more like most porpoises and dolphins, relying more on speed and snapping jaws to capture prey.

It inhabited the Mediterranean at a time not long after the sea there had mostly dried up and then been rapidly refilled. The presence of warm-water marine species such as bull sharks, tiger sharks, and dugongs in the same fossil beds as Casatia indicates the local climate at the time was hotter than it is today, with tropical temperatures – and suggests that this whale’s ancestors must have originally moved into the replenishing Mediterranean from lower latitudes alongside these other warmth-adapted animals.

This tropical monodontid was also much closer related to modern belugas than modern narwhals are, which raises the possibility that the two living monodontid species actually specialized for colder conditions completely independently of each other rather than descending from a cold-adapted common ancestor. Instead modern belugas and narwhals may have originated from separate warm-water monodontid ancestors who evolved similar cold-tolerant adaptations in parallel as the climate cooled during the onset of the Quaternary ice age, while the rest of their relatives all went extinct.

Kogiopsis

Kogiopsis floridana was a physeteroid whale that lived near the coast of the southeastern United States from the mid-Miocene to the early Pliocene, about 14-4 million years ago.

Known just from fossilized lower jaws and teeth, with some teeth up to nearly 13cm long (~5″), its full life appearance and size are uncertain – but it may have been slightly larger than a modern bottlenose dolphin at around 4.5m long (~14’9″). It’s traditionally been considered to be part of the kogiid family, closely related to modern pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, but some studies disagree with that classification and instead place it in the true sperm whale lineage.

It was probably a predator in a similar ecological role to modern orcas, adapted for hunting prey like squid, fish, and smaller marine mammals. But unlike orcas it wouldn’t have been the apex predator of its ecosystem, subject to predation pressure by even larger carnivores like macroraptorial sperm whales and everyone’s favorite ridiculously huge shark – and as a result it probably had a “live fast and die young” lifestyle similar to modern kogiids and other small-to-medium-sized Miocene physeteroids, rapidly maturing and only living to around 20 years old.

I’ve reconstructed Kogiopsis here as a kogiid-like animal, with a similar sort of shark-like head shape and “false gill” markings. In the background a second individual is depicted displaying “inking” behavior, releasing a defensive cloud of reddish-brown fluid from a specialized sac in its colon.

Phiomicetus

Named after the canine-headed Ancient Egyptian god, Phiomicetus anubis is the first fossil cetacean to discovered, described, and named entirely by a team of Arab paleontologists.

Living during the mid-Eocene, about 43 million years ago, in a shallow sea-covered region that is now part of Egypt‘s Western Desert, Phiomicetus was an early protocetid – an amphibious foot-powered swimmer, at a transitional point in the evolution of whales from deer-like terrestrial animals to fully aquatic screaming torpedoes.

About 3m long (~10′), it had large jaw muscles and sharp teeth with wear patterns that suggest it was a raptorial hunter grabbing and snapping at prey with powerful bites. It would have probably tackled fairly big prey compared to other protocetids, hunting things like large fish, turtles, and even smaller whales in an ecological role similar to that of modern orcas.

Along with the distantly-related long-snouted Rayanistes it’s one of the earliest known whales from Africa, giving us further glimpses at a time period when early cetaceans were first dispersing out from the South Asian subcontinent via the ancient Tethys Sea.