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Scientists Say The 27 Million Year-Old Echo Hunter Whale Fossil Proves They Have Echolocation Ability

First Posted: Aug 09, 2016 05:46 AM EDT
Killler Whale Calf At SeaWorld San Diego
Mom and baby killer whale swim together at SeaWorld San Diego's Shamu Stadium December 4, 2014 in San Diego, California.
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Whale evolution has been given a light when a team of researchers discovered an unusually well-preserved fossilized skull of an Echovenator Sandersi, nicknamed Echo Hunter. These researchers conducted a study on the physiology of its inner in great detail and discovered that the 27-million-year-old fossil had inner ear features that indicate it could hear high-pitched sounds that are too high for the human ear.

Echo Hunter is a relative of the modern toothed whales like dolphins, porpoises and sperm whales. New York Institute of Technology postdoctoral researcher Morgan Churchill said that the animal fits within whale evolution based on its cranial features. He further explained that they can use its cranial anatomy to determine whether or not it could echolocate. The Echo Hunter fossil had several features that could be seen in a modern whale with echolocation according to Churchill. Toothed whales or odontocetes use its echolocation capability to hunt for preys. They emit a series of high-frequency sounds and navigate based on the echoes.

By examining the Echo Hunter's ear, CT scans show evidence that the animal had a few features indicative of ultrasonic hearing giving clues to whale evolution. It had a spiraling inner ear bone with wide curves and a long bony support structure that allow a greater sensitivity to higher-frequency sounds. There is also small nerve canal found that is believed to probably transmit sound signals to the animal's brain, Science News reported.

Associate Professor, Jonathan Geisler, who co-authors the study said that the fossil was a small toothed whale which probably used its remarkable sense of hearing to find and pursue fish using only echoes. He added that this would allow the whale to hunt at night and more importantly, the whale could hunt at great depths in darkness, Phys Org reported.

Whale evolution started as the whales fed in the water so their feeding apparatus and ears changed early according to George Mason University Mark D. Uhen. Udhen, who was not involved in the study said that the previous research suggested that the earliest toothed whales could echolocate but only this new study provided a clearer picture.

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