Quirks & Quarks

Whales Slurp Their Way to Filter Feeding

A 33-million-year-old fossil whale, with adaptations for suction feeding, helps explain how baleen whales went from toothed hunters to filter feeders.

Suction feeding fossils paved the way for the evolution of baleen

Humpback whales have well developed baleen for filter feeding.
The evolution of filter feeding in whales allowed them to become the largest animals on the planet, but scientists haven't really been entirely sure how they did it. The transformation from an aquatic predator with teeth to a filter-feeder, sieving the water with baleen about 30 million years ago, has been a paleontological puzzle.

But a new fossil of a small toothed whale may provide part of the solution to that puzzle. While a fellow with the National Museum of Nature and Science in Japan, and studying with colleagues from Otago University in New Zealand, Dr. Felix Marx found signs in a whale fossil of suction feeding - a style of feeding that involves slurping in prey.

He suggests from this, the gradual evolution of mechanisms to trap food - ultimately baleen - would have been a natural shift, aimed at capturing smaller and smaller prey.

Related Links

Paper in Royal Society Open Science
- University of Otago release
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