There is a moment that comes to many of us as children; it’s a defining moment, a moment that takes us across the threshold from innocence to knowledge. It can be bittersweet, disillusioning, or perhaps revelatory for the child. It’s the moment when we learn that a whale is, in fact, not a fish, but a mammal. A mammal? We think. But how can that be? They’re—well, they should be fish. So what if they breathe air and nurse their young? A child hearing this may find something fundamentally wrong with the concept of whale-as-mammal. It may turn one’s world temporarily upside down. How can this be? We know already what mammals are, but why and how could a whale be one? That would make them more like us than like fish.
Cetaceans have fascinated humans for centuries. They live in the water, they have fins instead of legs and feet, and they even look kind of like large fish. The hypothetical child’s confusion doesn’t seem so unreasonable: after all, whales don’t seem in any way related to the land animals we see around us, but they are, in fact, mammals. How did this happen? How did mammals come to be living in the ocean? Where did whales come from, and how are they related to other mammals, the ones who live on land? This paper is intended to examine some of the evidence that has emerged in recent years in respect to the last question.
In 2001, in Pakistan, scientists unearthed fossils dating from the Eocene epoch that provide a few answers about the land-based origin of cetaceans. These fossils were of creatures known as cetacean pakicetids, land animals that once upon a time looked a bit like dogs. Although pieces of pakicetid fossils had been excavated...
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...s. He or she might be temporarily traumatized, but will most likely be fascinated. Perhaps this kid will grow up to be a paleontologist.
Thewissen, J.G.M. et. al. “Skeletons of terrestrial cetaceans and the relationship of whales to artiodactyls.” Nature 413 (2001) September 2001
Whitfield, John. “Almost like a whale.” Nature (2001) September 2001
Camp, Ashby L. “The Overselling of Whale Evolution.” Creation Matters (1998) May 1998 <http://www.trueorigin.org/whales.asp>
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