Skip to main content Accessibility help

Convergence on dental simplification in the evolution of whales

  • Carlos Mauricio Peredo (a1), Julio S. Peredo (a2) and Nicholas D. Pyenson (a3)


The fossil record of mammal dentition provides crucial insight into key ecological and functional transitions throughout mammalian evolutionary history. For cetaceans, both extant clades differ markedly from their stem ancestors; neither retains the differentiated dentition or the tribosphenic molars characteristic of Mammalia. We used quantitative measures of dental complexity across fossil and living cetaceans to identify a trend toward dental simplicity through the Neogene. Both extant cetacean clades depart from the ancestral mammalian condition and concurrently converge upon a reduced and simplified dentition; modern mysticetes all have become entirely edentulous (at birth), and living odontocetes possess teeth as single-rooted, conical pegs. These two parallel trends accompany major shifts in feeding strategy (i.e., filter feeding in mysticetes and echolocation in odontocetes), suggesting that these evolutionary innovations for prey acquisition are enabling factors for the loss of prey processing and subsequent convergence on dental simplification.



Hide All
Armfield, B. A., Zheng, Z., Bajpai, S., Vinyard, C. J., and Thewissen, J.. 2013. Development and evolution of the unique cetacean dentition. PeerJ 1:117.
Boyer, D. M. 2008. Relief index of second mandibular molars is a correlate of diet among prosimian primates and other euarchontan mammals. Journal of Human Evolution 55:11181137.
Bunn, J. M., Boyer, D. M., Lipman, Y., St Clair, E. M., Jernvall, J., and Daubechies, I.. 2011. Comparing Dirichlet normal surface energy of tooth crowns, a new technique of molar shape quantification for dietary inference, with previous methods in isolation and in combination. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 145:247261.
Cignoni, P., Callieri, M., Corsini, M., Dellepiane, M., Ganovelli, F., and Ranzuglia, G.. 2008. Meshlab: an open-source mesh processing tool. Eurographics Italian Chapter Conference 2008:129136.
Eschricht, D. F. 1849. Zoologisch-anatomisch-physiologische untersuchungen über die nordischen Wallthiere. Verlag von Leopold Voss, Leipzig.
Evans, A. R., and Janis, C. M.. 2014. The evolution of high dental complexity in the horse lineage. Annales Zoologici Fennici 51:7379.
Evans, A. R., Wilson, G. P., Fortelius, M., and Jernvall, J.. 2007. High-level similarity of dentitions in carnivorans and rodents. Nature 445:7881.
Geisler, J. H., Colbert, M. W., and Carew, J. L.. 2014. A new fossil species supports an early origin for toothed whale echolocation. Nature 508:383386.
Geisler, J. H., McGowen, M. R., Yang, G., and Gatesy, J.. 2011. A supermatrix analysis of genomic, morphological, and paleontological data from crown Cetacea. BMC Evolutionary Biology 11:133.
Gradstein, F. M., Ogg, J. G., Schmitz, M. D., and Ogg, G. M.. 2012. The geologic time scale. Elsevier BV, Oxford, U.K.
Gregory, W. K. 1921. The origin and evolution of the human dentition: a palaeontological review. Journal of Dental Research 3:87228.
Hocking, D. P., Marx, F. G., Park, T., Fitzgerald, E. M. G., and Evans, A. R.. 2017. A behavioural framework for the evolution of feeding in predatory aquatic mammals. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 284. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2016.2750.
Ishikawa, H., and Amasaki, H.. 1995. Development and physiological degradation of tooth buds and development of rudiment of baleen plate in southern minke whale, Balaenoptera acutorostrata. Journal of Veterinary Medical Science 57:665670.
Jernvall, J., Hunter, J. P., and Forteluis, M.. 1996. Molar tooth diversity, disparity, and ecology in Cenozoic ungulate radiations. Science 274:14891492.
Karlsen, K. 1962. Development of tooth germs and adjacent structures in the whalebone whale (Balaenoptera physalus (L.)). Hvalrådets Skrifter 45:156.
Lambert, O., Muizon, C. D., and Bianucci, G.. 2015. A new archaic homodont toothed cetacean (Mammalia, Cetacea, Odontoceti) from the early Miocene of Peru. Geodiversitas 37:79108.
Lindberg, D. R., and Pyenson, N. D.. 2007. Things that go bump in the night: evolutionary interactions between cephalopods and cetaceans in the tertiary. Lethaia 40:335343.
Lipps, J. H., and Mitchell, E.. 1976. Trophic model for the adaptive radiations and extinctions of pelagic marine mammals. Paleobiology 2:147155.
Lucas, P. W. 2004. Dental functional morphology: how teeth work. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.
Marshall, C. D., and Goldbogen, J. A.. 2015. Feeding mechanisms. Pp. 95118 in M. A. Castellini and J.-A. Mellish, eds. Marine mammal physiology: Requisites for ocean living. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Fla.
Marx, F. G. 2011. The more the merrier? A large cladistic analysis of mysticetes, and comments on the transition from teeth to baleen. Journal of Mammalian Evolution 18:77100.
McGowen, M. R., Spaulding, M., and Gatesy, J.. 2009. Divergence date estimation and a comprehensive molecular tree of extant cetaceans. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 53:891906.
Osborn, H. F. 1907. Evolution of mammalian molar teeth. Macmillan, New York.
Owen, R. 1845. Odontography; or, a treatise on the comparative anatomy of the teeth, their physiological relations, mode of sevelopement, and microscipic structure, in the vertebrate animals. Hippolyte Bailierre, London.
Pampush, J. D., Winchester, J. M., Morse, P. E., Vining, A. Q., Boyer, D. M., and Kay, R. F.. 2016. Introducing molaR: a new R package for quantitative topographic analysis of teeth (and other topographic surfaces). Journal of Mammalian Evolution 23:397412.
Peredo, C. M., Pyenson, N. D., and Boersma, A. T.. 2017. Decoupling tooth loss from the evolution of baleen in whales. Frontiers in Marine Science 4:111.
Prothero, D. R., Ivany, L. C., and Nesbitt, E. A.. 2003. From greenhouse to icehouse: the marine Eocene–Oligocene transition. Columbia University Press, New York.
Pyenson, N. D. 2017. The ecological rise of whales chronicled by the fossil record. Current Biology 27:R558R564.
Ridewood, W. G. 1923. Observations on the skull in foetal specimens of whales of the genera Megaptera and Balaenoptera . Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 211:209272.
Saint-Hilaire, G. 1807. Considérations sur les pièces de la tête osseuse des animaux vertébrés, et particulièrement sur celles du crâne des oiseaux. Annales du museum d’historia naturelle 10:342365.
Smits, P. D., and Evans, A. R.. 2012. Functional constraints on tooth morphology in carnivorous mammals. BMC Evolutionary Biology 12:146156.
Steeman, M. E., Hebsgaard, M. B., Fordyce, R. E., Ho, S. Y., Rabosky, D. L., Nielsen, R., Rahbek, C., Glenner, H., Sørensen, M. V., and Willerslev, E.. 2009. Radiation of extant cetaceans driven by restructuring of the oceans. Systematic Biology 58:573585.
Tanaka, Y., and Fordyce, R. E.. 2015. Historically significant late Oligocene dolphin Microcetus hectori Benham 1935: a new species of Waipatia (Platanistoidea). Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 45:135150.
Tanaka, Y., and Fordyce, R. E.. 2016. Awamokoa tokarahi, a new basal dolphin in the Platanistoidea (late Oligocene, New Zealand). Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 15:365386.
Thewissen, J., Sensor, J. D., Clementz, M. T., and Bajpai, S.. 2011. Evolution of dental wear and diet during the origin of whales. Paleobiology 37:655669.
Thewissen, J. G. M., Hieronymus, T. L., George, J. C., Suydam, R., Stimmelmayr, R., and McBurney, D.. 2017. Evolutionary aspects of the development of teeth and baleen in the bowhead whale. Journal of Anatomy 230:549566.
Uhen, M. D. 2004. Form, function, and anatomy of Dorudon atrox (Mammalia, Cetacea): an archaeocete from the Middle to Late Eocene of Egypt. University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology Papers on Paleontology 34:1222.
Uhen, M. D. 2017. Dental morphology. Pp. 246250 in B. Würsig, J. G. M. Thewissen, and K. M. Kovacs, eds. Encyclopedia of marine mammals. Academic, London.
Uhen, M. D., and Pyenson, N. D.. 2007. Diversity estimates, biases, and histriographic effects: resolving cetacean diversity in the Tertiary. Paleontologia Electronica 10:122.
Ungar, P. S. 2010. Mammal teeth: origin, evolution, and diversity. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md.
Werth, A. J. 2000. Feeding in marine mammals. Pp. 475514 in K. Schwenk, ed. Feeding: form, function and evolution in tetrapod vertebrates. Academic, New York.
Zachos, J., Pagani, M., Sloan, L., Thomas, E., and Billups, K.. 2001a. Trends, rhythms, and aberrations in global climate 65 Ma to Present. Science 292:686693.
Zachos, J. C., Shackleton, N. J., Revenaugh, J. S., Pälike, H., and Flower, B. P.. 2001b. Climate response to orbital forcing across the Oligocene–Miocene boundary. Science 292:274278.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed