Flukes of nature


Whale in action: Whale watching off the coast of Iceland
Whale in action: Whale watching off the coast of IcelandCourtesy Jake Ryan
Recently discovered fossils of a previously known species of early whale called Georgiacetus vogltlensis are giving new insight into how whales eventually developed tail flukes.

Paleontologist Mark D. Uhen of the Alabama Museum of Natural History at The University of Alabama found the fossils in Alabama and Mississippi. Georgiacetus lived 42 million years ago during the Eocene epoch. It was about 11 feet in length and had four limbs, although its rear leg bones weren’t attached to its body and were probably worthless for walking. (The Buzz's ARTifactor covered an earlier story about whales and their legs you can view here).

The new fossils contained previously unknown bones in Georgiacetus’s tail region. Study of the additional tailbones show that the whale ancestor had no fluke. It did, however, have large back feet, and appears to have propelled itself in much the same way modern whales do by undulating its hips in a wave motion.

"When whales move their flukes through the water, it creates a force to move them forward. Georgiacetus is doing something similar with its feet,” Dr. Uhen said.

Swimming vertebrates employ a number of swimming methods, such as paddling with all four limbs, paddling with only the back limbs, tail wiggling, and tail oscillation, and undulation of the hips. The last method – hip undulation - was thought to have been skipped by whales during their evolution, but this new fossil evidence shows otherwise.

The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology published Uhen’s study in its recent issue.

Story in JVP
Story on Fossil Science
Fox News story
Lots of links about whales and whale evolution

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

If it was found in Alabama and mississippi -- why is it named georgia!
well shut my mouth!

posted on Fri, 09/19/2008 - 1:22pm

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