The conclusion by University of California, Berkeley, post-doctoral fellow Jean-Renaud Boisserie and his French colleagues finally puts to rest the long-standing notion that the hippo is actually related to the pig or to its close relative, the South American peccary. In doing so, the finding reconciles the fossil record with the 20-year-old claim that molecular evidence points to the whale as the closest relative of the hippo.
"The problem with hippos is, if you look at the general shape of the animal it could be related to horses, as the ancient Greeks thought, or pigs, as modern scientists thought, while molecular phylogeny shows a close relationship with whales," said Boisserie. "But cetaceans whales, porpoises and dolphins don't look anything like hippos. There is a 40-million-year gap between fossils of early cetaceans and early hippos."
In a paper appearing this week in the Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Boisserie and colleagues Michel Brunet and Fabrice Lihoreau fill in this gap by proposing that whales and hippos had a common water-loving ancestor 50 to 60 million years ago that evolved and split into two groups: the early cetaceans, which eventually spurned land altogether and became totally aquatic; and a large and diverse group of four-legged beasts called anthracotheres. The pig-like anthracotheres, which blossomed over a 40-million-year period into at least 37 distinct genera on all continents except Oceania and South America, died out less than 2 and a half million years ago, leaving only one descendent: the hippopotamus.
This proposal places whales squarely within the large group of cloven-hoofed mammals (even-toed ungulates) known collectively as the Art
Contact: Robert Sanders
University of California - Berkeley