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New Fossil Rattles Moby Dick's Family Tree

Led by new NHM marine mammal curator, team discovers rare whale fossil in Panama, where fieldwork is difficult

April 29, 2015. Almost since the time of Melville’s epic hunt, scientists have been fascinated by the remarkable attributes of the sperm whale and its kin, the smaller pigmy and dwarf whales. Capable of diving to great depths and gifted with an acute sense of echolocation, these animals have remained inseparable to seamen lore. An international team of scientists, led by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s Curator of Marine Mammals Dr. Jorge Velez-Juarbe has discovered a new species of an extinct pigmy sperm whale from Panama that clarifies key aspects of the evolution of these magnificent animals. The report published in the journal PLOS ONE reveals an unexpected level of complexity in the evolution of the spermaceti organ of these whales, an organ located within the head that plays a key role in the generation of sound and in the whale’s capacity for echolocation.

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises have a long fossil record, which documents the evolutionary journey from terrestrial ancestors to the fully marine organisms of today. Such a record has enabled scientists to better understand how changes in climate and continental distribution have transformed the marine ecosystems and the diversity life forms that they host. Yet, the poor fossil of the smaller relatives of the well-known sperm whale, the 8- to 12-foot-long pigmy and dwarf sperm whales, has limited our understanding of the evolution of these mysterious animals. Discovered and studied by a team of scientists from the NHM, Iowa State University, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the new Panamanian fossil whale affords fresh evidence to this old problem.

“The new discovery gives us a better understanding of the ancient distribution of these poorly known relatives of the sperm whale,” said Dr. Jorge Velez-Juarbe, NHM Curator of Marine Mammals. “Previously we knew of similarly-aged pigmy and dwarf whales from Baja California and Peru, but this new fossil fills in an important geographic gap in the group’s ancient distribution.”

The new whale species, named Nanokogia isthmia after the Isthmus of Panama, is known from the well-preserved skulls of two individuals, which remains were unearthed at a sea cliff along the Caribbean coast of Panama and from rock layers dated to about 7 million years ago. “Our study is part of a larger scientific effort aimed at understanding the changes in the marine habitats that resulted from the complete closure of the Isthmus of Panama,” says Dr. Velez-Juarbe, referring to the separation between the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea that took place sometime within the last 10 million years.

These rare fossils are among a handful other fossil whales known from Panama, where fossil hunting is often difficult due to the dense vegetation and thick soils that often covers the surface. Resurrected from their million-year-old entombment, the new fossils tell us that the evolution of characteristics related to sound emission and echolocation was far more complex than previously envisioned. The new study shows that at one time, these small sperm whales had a much larger spermaceti organ, which got downsized at least twice during the evolutionary history of these animals (including the evolutionary event that gave origin to the living pygmy and dwarf sperm whales). The reasons of this size reduction remain unclear; scientists would have to find more complete skeletons of Nanokogia and other closely related species to untangle the question. For now, Dr. Velez-Juarbe continues to explore the prehistoric seas of Central America—Captain Ahab would have been proud.

Dr. Jorge Velez-Juarbe, NHM Curator of Marine Mammals, with one of the fossil skulls in the field in Panama.

About the Natural History Museum:
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is a national leader in research, exhibitions and education. The Museum was the first dedicated museum building in Los Angeles, opening its doors in 1913. It has amassed one of the world’s most extensive and valuable collections of natural and cultural history — with more than 35 million objects, some as old as 4.5 billion years. For more information, visit the Museum’s website at www.nhm.org or call (213) 763-DINO.

Kristin Friedrich kfriedri@nhm.org 213.763.3532