Gigantism Precedes Filter Feeding in Baleen Whale Evolution

R. Ewan Fordyce, Felix G. Marx

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34 Citations (Scopus)


Baleen whales (Mysticeti) are the largest animals on Earth, thanks to their ability to filter huge volumes of small prey from seawater. Mysticetes appeared during the Late Eocene, but evidence of their early evolution remains both sparse and controversial [1, 2], with several models competing to explain the origin of baleen-based bulk feeding [3–6]. Here, we describe a virtually complete skull of Llanocetus denticrenatus, the second-oldest (ca. 34 Ma) mysticete known. The new material represents the same individual as the type and only specimen, a fragmentary mandible. Phylogenetic analysis groups Llanocetus with the oldest mysticete, Mystacodon selenensis [2], into the basal family Llanocetidae. Llanocetus is gigantic (body length ∼8 m) compared to other early mysticetes [7–9]. The broad rostrum has sharp, widely spaced teeth with marked dental abrasion and attrition, suggesting biting and occlusal shearing. As in extant mysticetes, the palate bears many sulci, commonly interpreted as osteological correlates of baleen [3]. Unexpectedly, these sulci converge on the upper alveoli, suggesting a peri-dental blood supply to well-developed gums, rather than to inter-alveolar racks of baleen. We interpret Llanocetus as a raptorial or suction feeder, revealing that whales evolved gigantism well before the emergence of filter feeding. Rather than driving the origin of mysticetes, baleen and filtering most likely only arose after an initial phase of suction-assisted raptorial feeding [2, 4, 5]. This scenario differs strikingly from that proposed for odontocetes, whose defining adaptation—echolocation—was present even in their earliest representatives [10]. Fordyce and Marx describe Llanocetus denticrenatus, the second-oldest baleen whale. Llanocetus has notably worn teeth and well-developed palatal blood vessels, consistent with large gums, but not baleen. Unlike their modern descendants, early whales most likely did not filter, but at least some of them still grew into giants.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1670-1676.e2
Number of pages7
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 21 May 2018


  • body size
  • Eocene
  • filtering
  • Llanocetidae
  • Llanocetus
  • Mysticeti
  • palatal foramina
  • phylogeny
  • raptorial
  • suction feeding

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