The Ecological Rise of Whales Chronicled by the Fossil Record

Last modified: 
December 13, 2019 - 9:24pm
Type: Journal Article
Year of publication: 2017
Date published: 06/2017
Authors: Nicholas Pyenson
Journal title: Current Biology
Volume: 27
Issue: 11
Pages: R558 - R564
ISSN: 09609822

The evolution of cetaceans is one of the best examples of macroevolution documented from the fossil record. While ecological transitions dominate each phase of cetacean history, this context is rarely stated explicitly. The first major ecological phase involves a transition from riverine and deltaic environments to marine ones, concomitant with dramatic evolutionary transformations documented in their early fossil record. The second major phase involves ecological shifts associated with evolutionary innovations: echolocation (facilitating hunting prey at depth) and filter-feeding (enhancing foraging efficiency on small prey). This latter phase involves body size shifts, attributable to changes in foraging depth and environmental forcing, as well as re-invasions of freshwater systems on continental basins by multiple lineages. Modern phenomena driving cetacean ecology, such as trophic dynamics and arms races, have an evolutionary basis that remains mostly unexamined. The fossil record of cetaceans provides an historical basis for understanding current ecological mechanisms and consequences, especially as global climate change rapidly alters ocean and river ecosystems at rates and scales comparable to those over geologic time.

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