The origin of baleen and filter feeding in mysticete cetaceans occurred sometime between approximately 34 and 24 million years ago and represents a major macroevolutionary shift in cetacean morphology (teeth to baleen) and ecology (raptorial to filter feeding). We explore this dramatic change in feeding strategy by employing a diversity of tools and approaches: morphology, molecules, development, and stable isotopes from the geological record. Adaptations for raptorial feeding in extinct toothed mysticetes provide the phylogenetic context for evaluating morphological apomorphies preserved in the skeletons of stem and crown edentulous mysticetes. In this light, the presence of novel vascular structures on the palates of certain Oligocene toothed mysticetes is interpreted as the earliest evidence of baleen and points to an intermediate condition between an ancestral condition with teeth only and a derived condition with baleen only. Supporting this step-wise evolutionary hypothesis, evidence from stable isotopes show how changes in dental chemistry in early toothed mysticetes tracked the changes in diet and environment. Recent discoveries also demonstrate how this transition was made possible by radical changes in cranial ontogeny. In addition, genetic mutations and the possession of dental pseudogenes in extant baleen whales support a toothed ancestry for mysticetes. Molecular and morphological data also document the dramatic developmental shifts that take place in extant fetal baleen whales, in skull development, resorption of a fetal dentition and growth of baleen. The mechanisms involved in this complex evolutionary transition that entails multiple, integrated aspects of anatomy and ecology are only beginning to be understood, and future work will further clarify the processes underlying this macroevolutionary pattern.

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