Whales were a lot more fearsome during prehistoric times, if their knife-like teeth are any indication.
A team of scientists has suggested that the ancestors of baleen whales, the modern world’s largest animals, snapped around the ocean with teeth as sharp as what you would find in the mouth of a terrestrial meat-eater. According to a paper in the journal Biology Letters, these munchers “were capable of capturing and processing prey,” rather than passively filter-feeding like their descendants that roam Earth’s oceans these days.
The authors assert that these creatures evolved with sharp teeth perhaps because they had “a feeding strategy that included both biting and suction,” in which they were both drawing in and biting down on their prey.
The teeth often had multiple sharp protrusions, with a shape reminiscent of an animal’s paw or the flames of a fire.
Baleen whales have since lost these sharp teeth, and rely now on filter feeding to satiate their hunger. In that process, they suck in material and bristle-like structures in their jaws, positioned where teeth would be, filter their meal for them. Baleen contain keratin, the protein in human hair and fingernails.
The most well-known kinds of baleen whales include humpback whales, blue whales and gray whales, among others. Toothed whales, on the other hand, include animals that are classically identified as whales — like the sperm whale and the orca, also known as the killer whale — as well as dolphins, vaquitas and other porpoises. These two classes of whales split off from each other on the evolutionary tree about 34 million years ago.
How baleen whales went from the toothed creatures they once were to the filter-feeding ones they are today is a bit of a mystery. Some have said that the odd-shaped teeth of the ancient counterparts were used to filter food, just in a different way from modern baleen.
To better understand the transition, this team of scientists took a closer look at how sharp the…