The Pygmy Right Whale (Caperea marginata) is the oddball of the whale world. The bizarre anatomy of this species has confounded researchers for years – even its common name demonstrates our historical lack of understanding. Its arched upper jaw and skim-feeding behaviour is similar to the right whales however DNA analysis shows that Pygmy Right Whales are more closely related to the rorquals (family Balaenopteridae) than the true right whales (family Balaenidae).
The puzzle of the evolutionary history of this species was not helped by the fact that it appeared completely absent from the fossil record. Palaeontologist and whale expert Erich Fitzgerald was therefore extremely pleased to identify a lone fossil specimen in the Museum Victoria as a partial periotic (the bone that surrounds the inner ear) of an ancient relative of the Pygmy Right Whale.
One theory about this group, explains Erich, is that "the bizarre features of the Pygmy Right Whale evolved rapidly within the last three to four million years. But this fossil suggests that they're much older than that." The specimen, which Erich describes as "looking like a coconut," is larger than the periotic of the living Pygmy Right Whale and dates to the late Miocene. This makes it six million years old, which will help calibrate the whale phylogenies (evolutionary trees) that are based on DNA sequences.
Comparison of the incomplete fossil specimen (left) with a complete earbone of a juvenile Pygmy Right Whale.
Image: Erich Fitzgerald
Source: Museum Victoria / Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology
It is the peculiar skeleton of the Pygmy Right Whale, particularly of its ear bones, that allowed Erich to identify such an odd and incomplete fossil. "Baleen whales in general have strange skulls but in Pygmy Right Whales the ear bones are particularly strange because the back end, of the periotic, is enormous and bulbous. This fossil has no features that would ally it with any other family."
The strangeness of this whale doesn't end with its skull. First up, there is its size; at just 6.5 metres long, it's the smallest living baleen whale. Compare this with its colossal distant relatives, such as the 33 metre Blue Whale. But there's more, says Erich. "If we look beyond the head, there are some really strange things. In particular, the Pygmy Right Whale has ribs that are flattened and expanded. It almost looks like the ribs have formed a shield over the organs." This may relate to their unusual way of swimming which requires a stiffer trunk. "A young animal filmed underwater in South Africa shows that they flex their entire body not just the tail. It's thought that the ribs may be expanded to help keep the body rigid during this movement."
Until this footage, almost all knowledge of the species came from stranded individuals. Recent aerial photographs of a pod of Pygmy Right Whales off the coast near Portland showed some kind of social behaviour but exactly what it is – feeding, reproducing or something else – is still unknown.
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa made this video with a dissection of a stranded whale which clearly shows the unusual ribs.
Erich M. G. Fitzgerald. 2012. Possible neobalaenid from the Miocene of Australia implies a long evolutionary history for the pygmy right whale Caperea marginata (Cetacea, Mysticeti). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32(4): 976-980. DOI:10.1080/02724634.2012.669803
The Tetrapod Zoology blog has a series of three terrific posts about Pygmy Right Whales:
Caperea is really weird
More on little Caperea