Ancient whales did not filter feed with their teeth

David P. Hocking, Felix G. Marx, Erich M.G. Fitzgerald, Alistair R. Evans

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33 Citations (Scopus)


The origin of baleen whales (Mysticeti), the largest animals on Earth, is closely tied to their signature filter-feeding strategy. Unlike their modern relatives, archaic whales possessed a well-developed, heterodont adult dentition. How these teeth were used, and what role their function and subsequent loss played in the emergence of filter feeding, is an enduring mystery. In particular, it has been suggested that elaborate tooth crowns may have enabled stem mysticetes to filter with their postcanine teeth in a manner analogous to living crabeater and leopard seals, thereby facilitating the transition to baleen-assisted filtering. Here we show that the teeth of archaic mysticetes are as sharp as those of terrestrial carnivorans, raptorial pinnipeds and archaeocetes, and thus were capable of capturing and processing prey. By contrast, the postcanine teeth of leopard and crabeater seals are markedly blunter, and clearly unsuited to raptorial feeding. Our results suggest that mysticetes never passed through a tooth-based filtration phase, and that the use of teeth and baleen in early whales was not functionally connected. Continued selection for tooth sharpness in archaic mysticetes is best explained by a feeding strategy that included both biting and suction, similar to that of most living pinnipeds and, probably, early toothed whales (Odontoceti).

Original languageEnglish
Article number20170348
Number of pages4
JournalBiology Letters
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2017


  • Baleen whale
  • Filter feeding
  • Mysticeti
  • Raptorial feeding
  • Tooth sharpness

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