Ancient Whales Were Ferocious Predators Not Gentle Giants, Study Finds

Posted: Aug 31 2017, 9:25am CDT | by , in News | Latest Science News

 
Ancient Whales were Ferocious Predators Not Gentle Giants, Study Finds
Fossil of ancient whale skull. Credit: Ben Healley/Museums Victoria

3D scanning of fossilized teeth reveal that whales in the past had extremely sharp predator teeth similar to lions

Whales were not always as gentle as we know them today. Instead, they were fearsome predators that used to tear apart their prey with large, razor-sharp teeth, according to a new study from Australian researchers. The findings also contradict the long held theories that whales use their comb-like teeth to filter food from ocean water.

"These results are the first to show that ancient baleen whales had extremely sharp teeth with one function – cutting the flesh of their prey," said Museums Victoria's senior curator of vertebrate palaeontology Erich Fitzgerald.

"Contrary to what many people thought, whales never used their teeth as a sieve, and instead evolved their signature filter feeding technique later – maybe after their teeth had already been lost.”

Today, many groups of whales such as killer whales and baleen have special bristle-like structures or teeth in their mouth which allow them to filter plankton and small fish from the ocean. By taking 3D scans of ancient and modern teeth of whales from museum collections in Australia and overseas, researchers found that the teeth in prehistoric baleen whales were different to the present-day and were instead much sharper.

Modern whales do not chew to eat their food. They rather rely on sucking food through mouth. How whales started to use their teeth for purpose other than preying was something of a mystery until now. New study provides key evidence in the search to learn how the biggest animals evolved their most important trait: filter feeding.

“Filter feeding is the defining trait of modern whales - there are few ways in which this unique strategy could have evolved from tooth-bearing, predatory ancestors, and our study firmly rules out one of them.” Study lead co-author Associate Professor Alistair Evans, from the Monash School of Biological Sciences said.

Teeth are the main tool used for feeding and their shape can reveal much about the eating behavior of animals. When researchers compared the sharpness of the teeth of ancient whales, they found that they were similar to those of modern predators, like dingoes and lions.

“Predators that kill and chew their prey need sharp teeth with cutting blades. By contrast, species that use their teeth as a sieve have blunt teeth with rounded edges that help to filter prey from water,” said Dr Evans said.

"We found that ancient whales had sharp teeth similar to lions and dingoes so it likely they used their teeth to kill rather than filter."

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