Thursday, 8 June 2017

Extinct early whales listened like their relatives on land, fossil evidence shows

June 8, 2017

Whales rely on a keen sense of hearing for their underwater existence. But whales show surprisingly vast differences in hearing ability. Baleen whales tune into infrasonic sounds—at frequencies too low for humans to hear—to communicate over long distances. Toothed whales do just the opposite, relying on ultrasonic frequencies too high for humans to hear.

Now researchers reporting in Current Biology on June 8 have fossil evidence from extinct early whale species to suggest that those differences in hearing arose only after whales evolved into the fully aquatic animals we know today. That's based on their findings that whales known as protocetes, which spent time both in water and on land, appear to have hearing more like their terrestrial, even-toed ungulate relatives, including pigs, hippos, and camels.

"We found that the cochlea of protocetes was distinct from that of extant whales and dolphins and that they had hearing capacities close to those of their terrestrial relatives," says Maeva Orliac of CNRS and Université de Montpellier in France.

Protocetes' lack of hearing specialization suggests that the early whales were unable to echolocate and communicate through long-distance calls in the way that modern-day cetaceans, the group including whales and dolphins, do.

The researchers came to those conclusions based on studies of 45-million-year-old protocetid whale remains found in marine deposits from Togo in West Africa. The researchers studied the bony labyrinth, a hollow cavity that would have housed the hearing organ, in two species of early whales.

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