By Tui Benjamin
Aussie scientists have discovered prehistoric whales were not gentle giants but fearsome flesh-eating PREDATORS with super sharp teeth.
New research proves the early ancestors of today’s blue whales had teeth as sharp as those of lions and wolves – and used them for stalking the oceans for large prey to eat.
The finding disproves a long-held theory first posited by Charles Darwin that ancient whales used thin comb-like teeth to sieve through seawater for tiny plankton, as they do today.
Dr David Hocking, research fellow at Museums Victoria and Monash University in Melbourne said: “Early whales were neither gentle, nor giants. They were smaller than the whales of today and judging from their teeth, a lot meaner too.
“The teeth of archaic whales were surprisingly sharp, similar to those of terrestrial predators like lions.
“Sharp teeth are unsuitable for filtering, and instead suggest that the ancestors of today’s gentle giants were ferocious predators.
“This provides a crucial new insight into how the biggest animals ever evolved their most important trait; filter feeding.
“When they evolved filter feeding, whales completely turned their feeding biology upside down – maybe more radically so than we ever imagined.
“We think that filter feeding was a later invention that evolved after whales started to suck in, rather than bite, their prey, and so appeared after whales had mostly already lost their teeth.”
Paleontologists used 3D printers to uncover the myth-busting findings during a joint research project spearheaded by Museums Victoria and Monash University.
Using specimens from across the globe, they scanned the teeth of fossil whales and modern predators like dingoes and lions to make digital models form which the shape and sharpness could be measured.
The team discovered the primitive ancestors of today’s Southern Right whales and Blue whales in fact had extremely sharp teeth designed for biting and slicing open flesh.
Today’s whales use comb-like teeth called baleen to filter seawater for plankton while gently gliding through the ocean.
Experts had thought ancient whales used a zigzag-like sieve of long blunt teeth to trap small food in their mouth and allow water to flow between them like modern-day leopard and crabeater seals do, but that these were later replaced by baleen.
But the new findings proved the controversial long-standing theory – first developed by Charles Darwin – was wrong by showing the teeth of primitive baleen whales were radically different to those of seals and sharper than those of most living mammals.
Janjucetus, a primitive whale native to Victoria 25 million years ago, actually had teeth as sharp as a lion’s.
Dr Erich Fitzgerald, senior curator of vertebrate paleontology at Museums Victoria, said: “Our results are the first to show unequivocally that ancient whales had sharp teeth with one function – cutting the flesh of their prey – and thus were most likely ferocious predators.
“Contrary to what many people thought, it seems whales never used their teeth as a sieve and instead evolved their signature filter feeding strategy only later – maybe after their teeth had already been lost.”