Baleen boom and bust: A synthesis of mysticete phylogeny, diversity and disparity

Felix G. Marx, R. Ewan Fordyce

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146 Citations (Scopus)


A new, fully dated total-evidence phylogeny of baleen whales (Mysticeti) shows that evolutionary phases correlate strongly with Caenozoic modernization of the oceans and climates, implying a major role for bottom-up physical drivers. The phylogeny of 90 modern and dated fossil species suggests three major phases in baleen whale history: an early adaptive radiation (36–30 Ma), a shift towards bulk filter-feeding (30–23 Ma) and a climate-driven diversity loss around 3 Ma. Evolutionary rates and disparity were high following the origin of mysticetes around 38 Ma, coincident with global cooling, abrupt Southern Ocean eutrophication and the development of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC). Subsequently, evolutionary rates and disparity fell, becoming nearly constant after approximately 23Ma as the ACC reached its full strength. By contrast, species diversity rose until 15Ma and then remained stable, before dropping sharply with the onset of Northern Hemisphere glaciation. This decline coincided with the final establishment of modern mysticete gigantism and may be linked to glacially driven variability in the distribution of shallow habitats or an increased need for long-distance migration related to iron-mediated changes in glacial marine productivity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number140434
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Baleen whales
  • Disparity
  • Diversity
  • Evolutionary rates
  • Mysticeti
  • Phylogenetics

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