Scientists Say Ancient Toothed Whale Used Echolocation

Posted on March 13, 2014

Skull of Cotylocara macei


Scientists discovered the fossil of ancient whale in a drainage ditch in South Carolina. They say the skull of the whale fossil indicates the whale used echolocation. National Geographic reports that the scientists believe traits in the skull like the cavities around the nasal opening, the dense jaw bones and the hole where the nasal passage leaves the skull are traits that the ancient whale, Cotylocara macei, could echolocate. The ancient whale also had a shelf of bone around its nasal openings that researchers describe as "radar-dish-like."

The study was led by Jonathan Geisler, an anatomy professor at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine. Geisler says in a NYIT news release, "Its dense bones and air sinuses would have helped this whale focus its vocalizations into a probing beam of sound, which likely helped it find food at night or in muddy water ocean waters."

A fact page here on nyit.edu contains more information about Cotylocara macei, which lived between 35 and 32 million years ago. It belongs to extinct whale family called the Xenorophidae. The skull indicates the whale was probably about 10 to 11 feet long. Scientists believe it probably ate fish, which it grabbed with its front teeth before swallowing whole.

Geisler also says, "The anatomy of the skull is really unusual. I've not seen anything like this in any other whale, living or extinct."

A research paper about the ancient echolocating whale was published here in Nature.

Photo: James Carew and Mitchell Colgan