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Bone-crunching proto-whales - Basilosaurids

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A selection of the early cetaceans known as basilosaurids, to scale.
Palaeontology is unfortunately littered with mistakes. Edward Cope (he of the late 19th Century 'Bone Wars' fame) famously reconstructed the long-necked plesiosaur, Elasmosaurus, with the head on the short tail end. It was a regrettable decision when his rival, Othniel Marsh, was the one to point out his mistake. When giant metre long claws were discovered in Mongolia during 1948, the beast was thought to be some giant turtle-like reptile. It took until 1970 for Therizinosaurus to have it's dinosaur identity established. More recently earlier this year a sensational fossil was discovered encased in amber. Named Oculudentavis, it was described as a minute primitive bird, only for it to be quickly pointed out that it had features more in common with lepidosaur reptiles. Finally another example was when the first bones of one of the largest proto-whales was discovered in 1834, only for them to be interpreted as a sea-going reptile and thus given the name of King lizard. We know it as Basilosaurus, however the mistake is perpetuated by the name given to the entire family, Basilosauridae.
Prior to the first basilosaurids, early cetaceans were relatively small and still tied to the shore. Propulsion in water was mostly by hindfoot such as seen in phocid seals. By the mid Eocene basilosaurids had finally ditched returning to land for a fully marine existence. Although resembling modern whales, basilosaurids lacked the melon head characteristic of toothed whales. Whales also have very homogenous dentition, while basilosaurids retained the well defined range of teeth seen in other mammal groups used for chewing their prey. This consisted of mostly fish, squid and other marine mammals. Young Dorudon fossils have been found with bite marks consistant with predation from the larger Basilosaurus. Basilosaurids are characteristically long serpentine animals due to an elongation of the lumbar vertebrae. This facilitated a movement via tail propulsion similar to that seen in modern whales. Like the early proto-whales basilosaurids still possessed hind limbs but these were tiny and not used for locomotion. It is thought they may have been used claspers for mating.
The relationship between the basilosaurids and modern whales is confusing with some species possibly being ancestral to modern whales. The end of the Eocene was also the end of the last proto-whales.
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increíbles especies, podían mover su cabeza con independencia de sus torsos?

artbyjrc's avatar

Yes. They had an obvious 'neck'. Overall they were shallow water hunters.

Si. Tenían un "cuello" obvio. En general, eran cazadores de aguas poco profundas.

Davidy12's avatar

Interesting fact: Basilosaurus is the only mammal to have the latin suffix "-saurus" in its name.

artbyjrc's avatar

Only because they got it wrong initially and thought it was a sea-going reptile. Cannot think of any other examples.

bobswin's avatar

The great thing about science is that if one person writes down something that is wrong, you are not stuck with it forever. Another person can come along and correct it and the community can feel happy with the change (well, after a decade or so).

artbyjrc's avatar

Except for names. Plenty of poorly chosen named animals.

Hello. Have you thought about publishing a book about prehistoric animals ? You should make a key to connect the names with the drawings.

artbyjrc's avatar

Have been asked this before. Would love to. Maybe at some stage I might look into it...

I have avoided putting a key on most illustrations to avoid cluttering it up. The names sit in a similar order to the images, although it doesn't always seem that way! Obviously where I have too many images I have had no choice but to put a key in. It is something that I occasionally think about changing.

Nice illustration.

Longpaw's avatar

I love whales, but I wouldn't want to meet one of these guys! :-)

artbyjrc's avatar

Probably a fair point. They have been likened to mosasaurs in form/niche.

DemitriustheWolf999's avatar
What about the Borophaginae (Bone Crushing Dogs 🐕)
artbyjrc's avatar

What about them? No seriously I want to do some canids in the future.

DemitriustheWolf999's avatar
Oh okay then I’m just checking about !

Fun fact: Basilosaurus was a shallow-water predator. It could travel across open water, but that wasn't its main habitat, and it couldn't dive very deeply.

artbyjrc's avatar

Makes you wonder if the long thin body suited the environment choice? Also something which the 'Walking with...' series actually got correct - they definitely were hunting in mangroves in one scene.

The body shape probably had something to do with it.


Actually WWB got things wrong there, because they wrongly claimed that it was a pelagic animal and forced to hunt in the mangroves out of desperation (and being unsuited for hunting there), when in reality it would be the opposite. They have no excuses for this either, as Basilosaurus was known to be a shallow-water predator since 1998, and WWB came out in 2001.

artbyjrc's avatar

It was a stretch of my memory. I could imagine them hunting around the shallow coastal shelf + reefs too.

MRWHITE81's avatar

Cool drawing,

what's the very big one?

artbyjrc's avatar

Basilosaurus, him/herself.

spencerble's avatar

Isn't Basilosaurus live on Egypt on the Late Eocene period?

artbyjrc's avatar

Different species, but correct.

GatorsAreAwesome's avatar

Nice artwork! It would be cool if you did a piece on various current and prehistoric gliding mammals such as Maiopatagium, Eomys, Volaticotherium, colugos, Anomalures, flying squirrels, sugar gliders, and other marsupial gliders. Gliding mammals are some of my favorites.

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