UCL News


UCL in the News: How a small deer evolved into the whale

20 December 2007

Ian Sample, 'The Guardian' Fossil hunters have discovered the remains of the earliest ancestor of the modern whale: a small deer-like animal that waded in lagoons and munched on vegetation.

A team led by Hans Thewissen at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine reconstructed a near-complete skeleton of the animal, close in size to a domestic cat, dating from 48m years ago. …

Fred Spoor [UCL Anthropology] said the significance of the latest find was comparable to Archaeopteryx, the first fossils to show a clear transition between dinosaurs and birds. "For years cetaceans were used by creationists to support their views because for a long time the most primitive whales known had bodies that looked like modern whales, so there seemed to be this enormous gap in evolution. But since the early 1990s, there's been a rapid succession of fossils from India and Pakistan that beautifully fill that gap," he said.

"The tables are turned now because we have fossils that show that dramatic transition step by step. Cetaceans are almost the only group that has made such a rapid change from a land environment to an aquatic one.

"Unlike sealions and seals, which still spend some time on land, cetaceans are completely committed to the water now, and it had an enormous effect on their physiology. They had to change everything." …