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How ancient whales lost their legs, got sleek and conquered the oceans

When ancient whales finally parted company with the last remnants of their legs about 35 million years ago, a relatively sudden genetic event may have crowned an eons-long shrinking process.

An international group of scientists led by Hans Thewissen, Ph.D., a professor of anatomy at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, has used developmental data from contemporary spotted dolphins and fossils of ancient whales to try to pinpoint the genetic changes that could have caused whales, dolphins and porpoises to lose their hind limbs.

More than 50 million years ago the ancestors of whales and dolphins were four-footed land animals, not unlike large dogs. They became the sleek swimmers we recognize today during the next 15 million years, losing their hind limbs in a dramatic example of evolutionary change.

"We can see from fossils that whales clearly lived on land - they actually share a common ancestor with hippos, camels and deer," said team member Martin Cohn, Ph.D., a developmental biologist and associate professor with the UF departments of zoology and anatomy and cell biology and a member of the UF Genetics Institute. "Their transition to an aquatic lifestyle occurred long before they eliminated their hind limbs. During the transition, their limbs became smaller, but they kept the same number and arrangement of hind limb bones as their terrestrial ancestors."

In findings to be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists say the gradual shrinkage of the whales' hind limbs over 15 million years was the result of slowly accumulated genetic changes that influenced the size of the limbs and that these changes happened sometime late in development, during the fetal period.

However, the actual loss of the hind limb occurred much further along in the evolutionary process, when a drastic change occurred to inactivate a gene essential for limb development. This gene - called Sonic h
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Contact: John D. Pastor
jpastor@vpha.health.ufl.edu
352-273-5815
University of Florida
22-May-2006


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