News
News Home
Quick Bites
Exploradio
News Archive
News Channel
Special Features
NPR
nowplaying
On AirNewsClassical
Loading...
  
School Closings
WKSU Support
Funding for WKSU is made possible in part through support from the following businesses and organizations.

Area Agency on Aging 10B, Inc.

Don Drumm Studios

Akron General


For more information on how your company or organization can support WKSU, download the WKSU Media Kit.

(WKSU Media Kit PDF icon )


Donate Your Vehicle to WKSU

Programs Schedule Make A Pledge Member BenefitsFAQ/HelpContact Us
Science and Technology




Exploradio: In search of walking whales
A northeast Ohio fossil hunter documents his discoveries of the earliest ancestors of whales in a new book
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
This story is part of a special series.


Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
 
Pakicetus sits at the base of the whale family tree, pictured here hunting fish 49 million years ago in what is now northern Pakistan.
Courtesy of Hans Thewissen
Download (WKSU Only)
In The Region:
A new book by an Ohio author unravels what used to be one of the greatest mysteries of science. It’s the story of how whales and dolphins came to be fully adapted to aquatic life.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair talks with the fossil hunter who traces the path whales walked in their journey from land to the sea.


Exploradio: Walking Whales

Other options:
Windows Media / MP3 Download (3:41)


A broken ear tells a tale
The story of whales begins far from the ocean, high in what are now the Kashmiri mountains of northern India. That’s where, 50 million years ago, a tiny deer-like creature skittered through lush forests. It's called Indohyus and Northeast Ohio Medical University anatomy professor Hans Thewissen says no one really knew what kind of animal it was until his lab assistant confessed to an accident.

He'd snapped off part of the skull while cleaning it, and Thewissen says, "the part he had broken was just the ear.”

But that was enough.  Thewissen says this lucky accident allowed him to recognize that Indohyus was a whale because whale ears, both living and extinct, have a special shape that identifies the family. And the ears of this cat-sized water deer have that unique structure.

But why did Indohyus run into the water? Thewissen thinks it was to avoid being eaten. He says, “it was living on land, but it would always jump in the water as a means of predator escape and that’s how we now think that whales got their start.”

A modern animal called the mouse deer has a similar survival strategy today.

Pakicetus, the first whale
Thewissen shows me a metal cabinet filled the perfectly preserved bones of a later, dog-like whale that Thewissen found in the remote hills of northern Pakistan. This sheep in wolf’s clothing had hooves, but unlike Indohyus, Pakicetus, or Pakistan’s whale, was a meat eater.  Its ears, and sharp, serrated teeth, make it the first whale, according to Thewissen. He says Pakicetus sits at the base of the family tree that 49 million years ago led to today's whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Pakicetus mostly waded in the water in fresh-water rivers and streams, but Thewissen says its descendant, the Ambulocetus, or walking whale, was truly adapted to life in the sea.

Paddling in the ocean
Ambulocetus, he says,“is a lot bigger...about the size of a big male sea lion.”
 Ambulocetus was an ocean hunter that used its huge back feet to swim around the shorelines of an ancient Indian sea. But over the next few million years, walking whales began swimming less with their feet and more with their tails, like their modern relatives do.

In his lab, Thewissen shows me the skeletons of several bizarre looking creatures with long narrow snouts, short legs, and long, strong tails.  

“This is the most freakish of all of them I think."  

It's called Kutchicetus after the region of India where he discovered it. "I don’t think he was scary in terms that he would eat you like Ambulocetus would, but he’s definitely freakish looking,” says Thewissen.

Over time, new animals appeared with ever smaller legs. And around 40 million years ago, the world became populated with what we would recognize as a whale, despite its tiny, dangling hind legs. Thewissen says, “Evolution quickly sorts out some winners and losers and comes up with this great body form that modern whales have. And then all these forms that I’m studying go extinct.”

Filling the gaps in evolution
A skeleton of Ambulocetus, the walking whale, hangs in the atrium of the medical school just outside Thewissen’s lab. Thewissen says what for centuries had been a great scientific mystery, has in the past 15 to 20 years become one of the best examples of evolution. He says "the biology textbook of my son in high school has whales as the example of how the fossil record documents evolution. So it’s pretty exciting to see that happen.”

The result of two decades of exploration, he says, “has been a very exciting ride.”

Thewissen’s new book, ‘The Walking Whales,’ details his adventures hunting fossils in Pakistan and India. It’s set to be released this fall.
(Click image for larger view.)

Add Your Comment
Name:

Location:

E-mail: (not published, only used to contact you about your comment)


Comments:




 
Page Options

Print this page

E-Mail this page / Send mp3

Share on Facebook



Support for Exploradio
provided by:








Stories with Recent Comments

Cuyahoga Valley National Park OK's sharpshooters to thin deer herds
In this article you mention that the Mule Deer Foundation is a "hunting group" in reality the Mule Deer Foundation is a conservation group that is over 25 years...

In the driver's seat of history
I believe he was a teacher of mine as James Ford Rhodes. My favorite teacher of all time! Loved learning this part of his amazing history.

Cleveland RTA is moving Public Square bus stops beginning this week
I am very confused. Why are you taking one or more of the park and ride 246 out of service in the morning. I looking over the new schedule I see that there ar...

Canton school board will vote Wednesday on its high school merger
Great to see that THE REPOSITORY is advising a 'no' vote for now! Another point, besides all the Very accurate points already made against this move is the fac...

Some parents opting their students out of Common Core test
I am an 8th grader at a school in Allen County. I have just recently taken the ELA performance based assessment and found it extremely difficult. It asked me a ...

Fallout from the Ohio Supreme Court Munroe Falls ruling
The comment by Nathan Johnson from OEC is confusing. Instead of cities being 'emboldened' to craft zoning laws that were just stricken down by this ruling, comm...

Stopping sediment dumping in Lake Erie
Ah, yes, the Army Coro of Engineers, the geniuses that designed the levee system in New Orleans that has made the flooding worse due to no sediment reaching the...

Ohio charter school critic says reform bills are a good step
The cold truth is that these charter schools are offering services beyond the what the state tests can guage. Parents and students have a choice and they are ch...

State law trumps restrictions on oil and gas drilling in Munroe Falls
Justice O'Neill's quote brings up a point I wish WKSU would address: since, unlike for Federal judges, our judges here in Ohio are elected, and therefore respo...

Ohio Supreme Court invalidates local fracking bans
If Ohio has their way, Fracking Wells will be planted in the courtyard of every town. That is if the State of Ohio can profit by it...for more on how the court ...

Copyright © 2015 WKSU Public Radio, All Rights Reserved.

 
In Partnership With:

NPR PRI Kent State University

listen in windows media format listen in realplayer format Car Talk Hosts: Tom & Ray Magliozzi Fresh Air Host: Terry Gross A Service of Kent State University 89.7 WKSU | NPR.Classical.Other smart stuff. NPR Senior Correspondent: Noah Adams Living on Earth Host: Steve Curwood 89.7 WKSU | NPR.Classical.Other smart stuff. A Service of Kent State University