What Did Ancient Whales Look Like?

Author and curator Nick Pyenson describes the similarities and differences between humans and our distant mammalian relatives.

The following is an excerpt from Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures by Nick Pyenson. 

book cover of "spying on whales" with whale on cover

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Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures


I was never a whale hugger. I didn’t fall asleep snuggling stuffed whales or decorate my room with posters of humpbacks suspended in prismatic light. Like most children, I went through phases of intense study: sharks, Egyptology, cryptozoology, and paleontology. The curriculum was loosely inspired by my small curio cabinet crammed with a bricabrac collection of gifts and found treasures: abalone shells from my parents’ friends in California and fluorite from a great-aunt in New Mexico sat next to trilobites and fossil ferns that I had collected on family trips to Tennessee and Nova Scotia (good fossils being hard to come by on the island of Montreal). My collection was a tangible means to escape, across geography and time, as I read ravenously about dinosaurs, mammoths, and whales under the tacit encouragement of my parents, professors who recognized this type of aimless curiosity.

During one of my immersive phases, I came across a distribution map that showed the location of whale species around the world. With my finger I traced the range of blue whales, the largest of all whales, as it went right up the St. Lawrence River, which bordered my neighborhood. I wondered about my chances of seeing a blue whale casually surfacing in the distance near my house. The thought of a local blue whale was a reverie that often arose in my mind as a kid, although it took two decades for me to return to it in earnest, as a scientist.

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Some branches on the tree of life become quite personal, for reasons that are difficult to explain. We seek reflections of parts of ourselves in beings seemingly close to us—the disdain of a house cat or the perseverance of a tortoise—but in the end these species are distinctly other, refashioned by evolution and eons of time away from our shared ancestry. Those differences are accentuated to the furthest degree in whales; they seem mostly other—otherworldly, really—and that makes them both fascinating and enigmatic. They embody an incongruity that is vexing because they betray their mammalian heritage in so much of what they do, yet they look and live so far apart from us. Their size, power, and intelligence in the water are astonishing because they’re unparalleled, yet whales are benign and pose no threat to our lives. They are almost a human dream of alien life: approachable, sophisticated, and unscrutable.

I don’t malign whale huggers and dolphin lovers, even if I wrinkle my nose at the rhapsodic celebrations of armchair experts. Yes, whales and their lives are superlative, foreign, and well worth epic prose. But their amazing qualities are just starting points for me, as a scientist. Whales aren’t my destination: they are the gateway to a journey of discovery, across oceans and through time. I study whales because they tell me about inaccessible worlds, scales of experience that I can’t feel, and because the architecture of their bodies shows how evolution works. By rock pick, knife blade, or X-ray, I seek the corporeal evidence they provide—their fossils, their soft parts, or their bones—as a tangible way to anchor questions that surpass the bounds of our own lives. Whales have a past that reaches into Deep Time, over millions of years, which is important because some features of these past worlds, such as sea level rise and the acidification of ocean water, will return in our near-future one. We need that context to know what will happen to whales on planet Earth in the age of humans.

[These science books were made for the summer.]

Whales are so very unlike the furry, sharp-eyed, tail-wagging, baby-nuzzling animals we think of when it comes to our mammalian relatives. First off, whales are among the few mammals that live their entire lives in the water. The only fur to be found on their bodies is the hairs that dot their beaks at birth. Although whales possess the same individual finger bones that you and I do, their phalanges are flattened, wrapped together in a mitt of flesh, and streamlined into bladelike wings, no hooves or claws to mar their perfect hydrofoils. Hind limbs exist only as relics in a handful of species, bony remnants tucked deep within muscle and blubber. A whale’s backbone ends in a fleshy tail fluke, like a shark’s; but unlike a shark or even a fish, whales swim by flexing their backbone up and down, not side to side. In short, they look nothing like squirrels or monkeys or tigers, but whales still breathe air, give birth, nurse their young, and keep company with one another over their lifetimes.

Fossils tell us the earliest whales were more obviously, visibly mammalian. The first whales had four legs, a nose at the tip of their snout, and maybe even fur (up for some debate among paleontologists, as fur doesn’t readily fossilize). They had sharp, bladelike teeth and lived in habitats that ranged from woodlands with streams to river deltas, occasionally feeding in the brackish waters of warm, shallow equatorial coasts. The oldest fossils of these land-dwelling, four-legged urwhales come from rock sequences around about fifty million to forty million years old in the mountain ranges of Pakistan and India. At the time, the Indian subcontinent had not yet collided with Asia and sat in the middle of the forerunner to the Mediterranean Sea, called the Tethys sea, which split the Old World at the equator.

The skeletons of most of these first whales were the size of a large domestic dog. Because they lived on land, you won’t find the flattened arm and finger bones we see in whales today— instead their limb bones are round and weight bearing, and their hands and feet end in elegant, delicate phalanges. Their tail, as far as we can infer from the available bones, did not end in a fluke. Their Latin names give some clues about their provenance or what makes them special. Pakicetus, for example, originates from an area that is now Pakistan, but was once an island archipelago where early whales climbed in and out of streams.

The combination of four legs, phalanges, and cusped teeth is found in no whale alive today. What made these ancient creatures whales in the first place is subtle, lodged deep in their skeletons. That’s a good thing for us because these hard parts stand a chance of being preserved over tens of thousands of millennia. One of the most important features is the involucrum, a fan-shaped surface on the outer ear bone, rolled like a tiny conch shell. Pakicetus has an involucrum, as does every other branch on the whale family tree subsequent to it. The involucrum is one key trait, along with small clues in the inner ear and braincase, that the earliest whales share exclusively with today’s whales and no other mammals. In other words, it’s a feature that makes them whales and not something else. It’s unclear whether the trait gave Pakicetus an advantage for hearing on land, but later lineages of early whales co-opted it to hear directionally underwater, using a connection between the outer ear bones and the jawbones. Tens of millions of years later, the involucrum (and underwater hearing) persists in today’s whales, from porpoises to blue whales.

Adapted from Spying On Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures, by Nick Pyenson. Published on June 26, 2018 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Smithsonian Institution, 2018.

Meet the Writer

About Nick Pyenson

Nick Pyenson is author of Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures (Viking, 2018), and curator of Fossil Marine Mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C..

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