The tempo of cetacean cranial evolution

Ellen J. Coombs, Ryan N. Felice, Julien Clavel, Travis Park, Rebecca F. Bennion, Morgan Churchill, Jonathan H. Geisler, Brian Beatty, Anjali Goswami

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


The evolution of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) represents one of the most extreme adaptive transitions known, from terrestrial mammals to a highly specialized aquatic radiation that includes the largest animals alive today. Many anatomical shifts in this transition involve the feeding, respiratory, and sensory structures of the cranium, which we quantified with a high-density, three-dimensional geometric morphometric analysis of 201 living and extinct cetacean species spanning the entirety of their ∼50-million-year evolutionary history. Our analyses demonstrate that cetacean suborders occupy distinct areas of cranial morphospace, with extinct, transitional taxa bridging the gap between archaeocetes (stem whales) and modern mysticetes (baleen whales) and odontocetes (toothed whales). This diversity was obtained through three key periods of rapid evolution: first, the initial evolution of archaeocetes in the early to mid-Eocene produced the highest evolutionary rates seen in cetaceans, concentrated in the maxilla, frontal, premaxilla, and nasal; second, the late Eocene divergence of the mysticetes and odontocetes drives a second peak in rates, with high rates and disparity sustained through the Oligocene; and third, the diversification of odontocetes, particularly sperm whales, in the Miocene (∼18–10 Mya) propels a final peak in the tempo of cetacean morphological evolution. Archaeocetes show the fastest evolutionary rates but the lowest disparity. Odontocetes exhibit the highest disparity, while mysticetes evolve at the slowest pace, particularly in the Neogene. Diet and echolocation have the strongest influence on cranial morphology, with habitat, size, dentition, and feeding method also significant factors impacting shape, disparity, and the pace of cetacean cranial evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2233-2247.e4
Number of pages20
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • cranium
  • diversity
  • ecology cetaceans
  • evolutionary rates
  • morphology

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