|Oligocene Fossil Whale Vertebrae, Olympic Peninsula|
Found amongst the beach pebbles on the Olympic Peninsula, they are definitely cetacean and very likely baleen as this area is home to some of the earliest baleen whales in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1993, a twenty-seven million-year-old specimen was discovered in deposits nearby that represents a new species of early baleen whale. It is especially interesting as it is from a stage in the group’s evolutionary history when baleen whales transitioned from having teeth to filtering food with baleen bristles. Visiting researcher Carlos Mauricio Peredo studied the fossil whale remains, publishing his research to solidify Sitsqwayk cornishorum (pronounced sits-quake) in the annals of history.
|Baby Gray Whale, Eschrichtius robustus, showing his baleen|
The baleen is the comb-like strainer that sits on the upper jaw of baleen whales and is used to filter food.
We have to ponder when this evolutionary change —moving from teeth to baleen — occurred and what factors might have caused it. Traditionally, we have sought answers about the evolution of baleen whales by turning to two extinct groups: the aetiocetids and the eomysticetids.
The aetiocetids are small baleen whales that still have teeth, but they are very small, and it remains uncertain whether or not they used their teeth. In contrast, the eomysticetids are about the size of an adult Minke Whale and seem to have been much more akin to modern baleen whales; though it’s not certain if they had baleen. Baleen typically does not preserve in the fossil record being soft tissue; generally, only hard tissue, bones & teeth, are fossilized.
Photo: Oligocene Fossil Whale vertebrae from Majestic Beach, Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, USA.