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Hopkins scientist evaluates latest findings on the ancestry of whales

From Moby Dick to Shamu, whales have long fascinated humans. Their remarkable status as ocean-dwelling mammals, along with dolphins and porpoises, at once makes them related to us and yet inconceivably different from us. Thus their evolution -- the developmental steps required to leave solid ground for a life in the water -- has long fascinated scientists, including Kenneth Rose of the Program for Functional Anatomy and Evolution at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

In the September 21 issue of the journal Science, Rose provides outside perspective on a report in the same issue that fills an important gap in scientists' understanding of whale evolution. The report by others documents new fossils of very primitive whales that were found in Pakistan.

The new fossils, says Rose, have well-developed limbs and are the first to have well-enough preserved ankle bones to allow scientists to change their conclusions about which animals are the closest relatives of these 50 million-year-old primitive whales. The importance of this finding, and a similar report about even older fossils in the September 20 issue of Nature, is that it unifies the scientific perspective on whale evolution, says Rose.

"What's most important about these new fossils is that they contain well-preserved ankles, the most important region morphologically for establishing evolutionary relationships as early whales were in the process of becoming aquatic," explains Rose. "Previously, only fragments have been known of these species, and the few ankle bones that some had identified were not widely accepted among scientists because of the condition of the fossils and their lack of direct association with whale skulls."

There are two main ways scientists determine evolutionary relationships among various species, he explains. Some scientists consider physical characteristics of specimens -- the morphology -- and look for similarities or differences, the pres
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Contact: Joanna Downer
jdowner1@jhmi.edu
410-614-5105
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
20-Sep-2001


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