Science Says: Whale of a mystery solved? How they got so big


By taking the measurements of a large number of skulls in the museum's collection, the researchers established the length of 63 extinct whale species, going back to the earliest baleen whales from over 30 million years ago, and found that none of the species was as big as they are today.

"We live in a time of giants", Jeremy Goldbogen, of Stanford University in the United States, said.

'Baleen whales have never been this big, ever'.

Researchers, including those from the National Museum of Natural History in the U.S., measured a wide range of fossil skulls. "Baleen evolved about 20 million years ago, and we didn't see the evolution of gigantism until about very recently, about 3 million to 5 million years ago".

Scientists say the shift towards sizes of more than 10 metres in length probably cropped up in baleen whales just 2m-3m years ago, and was driven by changes in the distribution of their food in the ocean.

"You have to be big to make the most of that", Slater told Vocativ.

"We haven't had the right data".

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'How do you measure the total length of a whale that's represented by a chunk of fossil?' With that advance, the time was right to address the long-standing question. The evolution begins from that stage for the Baleen whales.

They have long plates of "baleen" which hang in a row, like the teeth of a comb, from their upper jaws.

The cooling oceans created a disturbance in nutrient flows at the edges of continents that would have made zooplankton - baleen whales' prey - group into more dense packs to make use of the nutrient hotspots, the authors argue. "But blue whales are krill specialists".

They are strong and flexible and made of a protein similar to human fingernails.

As whales became larger, they could ingest food more efficiently, obtaining enormous amounts of potential energy as they eat large groups of plankton and small fish.

The data also showed that the large whales that exist today were not present for most of whales' history.

"If we fast-forward a few million years into the future if food is not limiting, can they evolve even greater body sizes?" stated lead researcher Jeremy Goldbogen.

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At the same time, smaller species of whale began to vanish, suggesting that large size was suddenly an important advantage.

Overview of the blue whale in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life during the American Museum of Natural History's Winter Dance. "The whales we have today are substantially bigger than anything we find in the fossil record".

The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, noted that the size of whales started changing as the poles got colder and the ice expanded.

Before ice sheets began to cover the Northern Hemisphere, food resources would have been fairly evenly distributed throughout the oceans, Pyenson said.

However, when glaciation began, run off from the new ice caps would have washed nutrients into coastal waters at certain times of the year, seasonally boosting food supplies, researchers said. This new study points out that, as the weather started changing, krill started packing and moving in smaller areas than before.

"An animal's size determines so much about its ecological role", Pyenson said.

Another advantage of large size was the ability to make epic journeys of thousands of miles to take advantage of seasonally abundant food supplies, said the scientists.

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