Saturday, December 22, 2012

Pygmy right whale finds its family

That's one way to put it.  Media headlines, though, seem to be getting it all wrong. It's always a variation on "Living Fossil Whale Discovered." We need to straighten that out. The pygmy right whale Caperea marginata was discovered in 1846 and has been around ever since.  It's always been rare (it appears on CITES Appendix I, the list of the world's most threatened species) but we've always know it's out there.  What's new is research showing the pygmy should not be lumped taxonomically with the larger right whales (which, incidentally, got their name by being the "right whale" to kill, as they were easy prey for whalers and floated well when dead.)  Instead, the skull morphology points to a family called cetotheres which arose about 15MYA and were thought to have died out about 2MYA.    While scientists generally dislike the term "living fossil" (seeing as it's rather self-contradictory), it means this rare whale is a window into the past of the cetaceans. Here's the actual paper

Pygmy right as photographed by NOAA mammologist Robert Pitman. 

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