How Whales Became the Biggest Animals on the Planet: Reminder Big Can Mean Majestic

Take a break and explore a benign and beautiful creature.

Whales are big. Really big. Enormously big. Tremendously big.

Fin whales can be 140,000 pounds. Bowhead whales tip the scales at 200,000 pounds. And the big mama of them all, the blue whale, can reach a whopping 380,000 pounds — making it the largest animal to have ever lived.

But for as long as whales have awed us with their great size, people have wondered how they became so colossal.

In a study published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a team of researchers investigated gigantism in baleen whales, the filter-feeding leviathans that include blue whales, bowhead whales and fin whales. The marine mammals became jumbo-size relatively recently, they found, only within the past 4.5 million years. The cause? A climatic change that allowed the behemoths to binge-eat.

Whales have an interesting evolutionary history. They began as land-dwelling, hoofed mammals some 50 million years ago. Over several millions of years they developed fins and became marine creatures. Between about 20 million and 30 million years ago, some of these ancient whales developed the ability to filter-feed, which meant they could swallow swarms of tiny prey in a single gargantuan gulp. But even with this feeding ability, whales remained only moderately large for millions of years.

“But then all of a sudden — ‘boom’ — we see them get very big, like blue whales,” said Nick Pyenson, the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and an author of the paper. “It’s like going from whales the size of minivans to longer than two school buses.”

Dr. Pyenson and his colleagues measured more than 140 museum specimens of fossilized whales, and then plugged that data into a statistical model. It showed that several distinct lineages of baleen whales became giants around the same time, independently of one another. Starting around 4.5 million years ago, giant blue whales were popping up in oceans across the world alongside giant bowhead whales and giant fin whales.

The researchers suspected that an environmental change happened during that time that essentially caused the baleen whales to bulk up. After some investigation, they found that this time period coincided with the early beginnings of when ice sheets increasingly covered the Northern Hemisphere.

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