Mystacodon: See how far they’ll go to ‘find’ a mysticete ancestor

According to Wikipedia
Mystacodon (Lambert et al. 2017) is a genus of toothed mysticete from the Late Eocene Yumaque Formation of Peru. It is the earliest known member of the Mysticeti, and the second confirmed Eocene mysticete.” Here (Fig. 1) you can compare it to the smaller and more primitive (because it has a bigger pelvis) Maiacetus, to scale. Mystacodon is no mysticete. It’s what a tenrec/odontocete becomes when it gets good at swimming, but not as good as Zeuglodon, which has an even smaller pelvis. We looked at the origin of mysticetes among desmostylians earlier here, here and here. It was first reported here, last October, perhaps too late for the manuscript submission publishing schedule. Even so, whale experts have omitted, overlooked or ignored desmostylians in their quest for mysticete ancestors, and this is what happens.

This is what happens with taxon exclusion.
You get a ‘by default’ nesting, like nesting turtles and Vancleavea with archosaurs or Tetraceratops with therapsids. It also reminds me of when David Hone and Sterling Nesbitt bent over backward to find a mandibular fenestra and an antorbital fossa on pterosaurs in a desperate attempt to prove an invalid hypothesis.

FIgure 1. This toothy whale with a tiny pelvis is Mystcodon, originally promoted as the earliest known mysticete (baleen whale).

FIgure 1. My, what big teeth you have! This toothy whale with a tiny pelvis is Mystcodon, originally promoted as the earliest known mysticete (baleen whale). Note the size and placement of the teeth matching Maiacetus.

And the whale authors got all the publicity they wanted
in this Guardian article with illustrations. Here is a quote from the article:

“Fossil hunters say they have unearthed a missing link in the evolution of baleen whales after digging up the remains of a creature thought to have lived more than 36 million years ago.

The whales, known as mysticeti, sport a bristling collection of sieve-like plates known as baleen that they use to filter water for food. Species include the enormous blue whale, the gray whale and the humpback whale.

But while baleen whales are known to have shared a common ancestor with toothed whales, which are the other major group of modern whales, the path by which the creatures emerged has been somewhat hazily understood. Now researchers say they have discovered the oldest known cousin of modern baleen whales, offering unprecedented insights into their evolution.

“This [split in the family tree] has been dated to about 38 or 39m years ago,” said Olivier Lambert, co-author of the research from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. “The whale we discovered here has been dated to 36.4 [million years ago], so it is only two to three million years younger than this presumed origin.”

“This is the fossil that we’ve been waiting for,” says Nick Pyenson, a palaeontologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. 

“To determine where M. selenensis fit in the whale family tree, the researchers compared characteristics such as the shape of its skull and pelvic bone to those of other fossil whales. The creature’s flat snout resembles that of modern baleen whales. But its pelvic bone fit more with ancestral whales, complete with areas where the leg bones would typically slot in, says Lambert. “So, we think that this animal still had tiny legs protruding from the body.”

“Lambert and his colleagues think that M. selenensis might have sucked up its prey from the ocean floor. This wasn’t unusual, however, because baleen-whale ancestors around that time sported a wide variety of dental and feeding mechanisms. “There’s big toothed things, there’s little toothed things and there’s toothless things, all at once,” says Uhen. But by around 23 million years ago, all the whales in this group had baleen, and “all these toothy things go away”, he says.”

Mystacodon has a wide flat triangular rostrum…
so does Physeter, the sperm whale (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Physeter (sperm whale) skull. Note the low, flat, triangular toothless rostrum.

Figure 3. Physeter (sperm whale) skull. Note the low, flat, triangular toothless rostrum.

Examine all possible candidates. Don’t exclude relevant taxa. Mystacodon sheds no light on the origin of baleen whales—but it does shed light on the origin of odontocetes.

Lambert, O. et al. (seven co-authors) 2017. Earliest Mysticete from the Late Eocene of Peru Sheds New Light on the Origin of Baleen Whales. Current Biology 27:1535–1541.e2 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2017.04.026.


2 thoughts on “Mystacodon: See how far they’ll go to ‘find’ a mysticete ancestor

  1. One thing I’m eager to know is how do desmotylian ear bones compare to whales’. Since cetaceans have such unique tympanic bullae, shouldn’t demostylians have something at least similar, or even a better gradient to the mysticete forms than we get from odontocetes?

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