Native Village Youth and Education News

March 1, 2009 Issue 195 Volume 3


Ancient Whales Gave Birth on Land
By Jeanna Bryner
Condensed by Gina Boltz, Director, Native Village

Reconstruction of the 2.6-meter-long Maiacetus inuus, an early whale that lived about 47,500,000 ago along the coast of today's southern Asia.

More than 47,500,000 years ago, a whale was about to give birth to her young -- on land. That's according to fossilized bones discovered by scientists. The skeletal remains of a pregnant cetacean showed the fetus was positioned head-down. That is the case for land-based animals -- not aquatic whales. The fetus's teeth were so well-developed that researchers believe the baby would have been born within days, had its mom not died.
The fossil discovery marks the first extinct whale and fetus combination known to date. It sheds light on ancient whales

Philip Gingerich and his team from the University of Michigan discovered the pregnant whale remains in Pakistan in 2000. Then in 2004, they found the nearly complete skeleton of an adult male in those fossil beds. The adult whales are about 8.5 feet long and weighed between 615 - 860 pounds. The male was slightly longer and heavier than the female.

The new species, Maiacetus inuus, is a member of the Archaeoceti, a group of cetaceans. Cetaceans are an animal group that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. Archaeocetes had mouths full of several types of teeth, as well as nostrils near the nose tip. Both features are seen in land mammals but not in today's whales.

Like other archaeocetes, the newly discovered whale had four legs for foot-powered swimming up steep hills in the water.  They probably couldn't go far on land.

The team believes that Maiacetus fed at sea and came ashore to rest, mate and give birth.

The fetus's head-first position matches what is found in many land animals.  Human babies also emerge head first, ideally. Scientists think the head-first position allows land mammals to breathe even if they get stuck in the birth canal. But that's not the case underwater.

"If you're born in the water you don't want the head out away from the mother until it's going to pop free, because you don't want it to drown, Gingerich said.

Tail-first deliveries in modern whales and dolphins also ensures the baby is facing in the same direction as its mother who is likely swimming. It also helps mom and baby to keep from getting separated.

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