Environment How whales lost their teeth

How whales lost their teeth

New research shows how ancient baleen whales evolved from biting prey with teeth to using baleen, the hair-like structures that allow them to filter huge amounts of tiny plankton, like krill, from seawater.

Monash University scientists have played a key role in a study of ‘Alfred’ – a 25-million-year-old fossilised whale skull recently unveiled at Museum Victoria.

The fossil skull is from an extinct group of whales which despite having teeth were an early branch of the baleen whale family tree.

Alfred’s teeth show exceptionally rare evidence of feeding behaviour now only seen in a few living marine mammals, such as walrus.

These animals use a back-and-forth movement of their tongue to suck in prey, and incidentally rough material like sand.

“Alfred shows how ancient baleen whales made an evolutionary switch,” said Monash Science Senior Research Fellow, Dr Alistair Evans.

“They first became suction feeders. Feeding in this way resulted in reduced need for teeth, so over time their teeth were lost before baleen appeared.”

Researchers say filter feeding is the key to the baleen whales’ evolutionary success.

The research was a collaboration with international researchers and palaeontologists from Museum Victoria.

You can read more about Alfred and the research team’s findings here. Story credit: Monash University newsroom.

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