The Mammals That Conquered the Seas; Prehistoric Beasts; Exclusive Online Issues; by Kate Wong; 9 Page(s)
Dawn breaks over the Tethys Sea, 48 million years ago, and the bluegreen water sparkles with the day's first light. But for one small mammal, this new day will end almost as soon as it has started. Tapir-like Eotitanops has wandered perilously close to the water's edge, ignoring its mother's warning call. For the brute lurking motionless among the mangroves, the opportunity is simply too good to pass up. It lunges landward, propelled by powerful hind limbs, and sinks its formidable teeth into the calf, dragging it back into the surf. The victim's frantic struggling subsides as it drowns, trapped in the viselike jaws of its captor. Victorious, the beast shambles out of the water to devour its kill on terra firma. At first glance, this fearsome predator resembles a crocodile, with its squat legs, stout tail, long snout and eyes that sit high on its skull. But on closer inspection, it has not armor but fur, not claws but hooves. And the cusps on its teeth clearly identify it not as a reptile but as a mammal. In fact, this improbable creature is Ambulocetus, an early whale, and one of a series of intermediates linking the land-dwelling ancestors of cetaceans to the 80 or so species of whales, dolphins and porpoises that rule the oceans today.
Until recently, the emergence of whales was one of the most intractable mysteries facing evolutionary biologists. Lacking fur and hind limbs and unable to go ashore for so much as a sip of freshwater, living cetaceans represent a dramatic departure from the mammalian norm. Indeed, their piscine form led Herman Melville in 1851 to describe Moby Dick and his fellow whales as fishes. But to 19th-century naturalists such as Charles Darwin, these air-breathing, warm-blooded animals that nurse their young with milk distinctly grouped with mammals. And because ancestral mammals lived on land, it stood to reason that whales ultimately descended from a terrestrial ancestor. Exactly how that might have happened, however, eluded scholars. For his part, Darwin noted in On the Origin of Species that a bear swimming with its mouth agape to catch insects was a plausible evolutionary starting point for whales. But the proposition attracted so much ridicule that in later editions of the book he said just that such a bear was "almost like a whale."