Elizabeth Pennisi in Science:
Weighing in at 200,000 kilograms and stretching the length of a basketball court, the blue whale is the biggest animal that’s ever lived. Now, scientists have figured out why they and other baleen whales got so huge. “It’s a cool study,” says Jakob Vinther, an evolutionary paleobologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. "I’m going to send it to my students." Biologists have long debated why some whales became the world’s biggest animals. Some have proposed that because water bears the animal’s weight, whales can move around more easily and gulp in enough food to sustain big appetites. Others have suggested that whales got big to fend off giant sharks and other megapredators. Researchers have also argued about when these animals got so huge. In 2010, Graham Slater, an evolutionary biologist currently at the University of Chicago in Illinois, argued that cetaceans—a term that includes whales and dolphins—split into different-sized groups very early in their history, perhaps 30 million years ago. Dolphins remained the shrimps of the cetacean world, filter-feeding baleen whales became the giants, and predatory beaked whales stayed in the middle size-wise, with the descendants in those three groups sticking within those early established size ranges.
However, Nicholas Pyenson, a whale expert at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., was skeptical. So a few years ago, the two decided to tap the museum’s vast cetacean fossil collection to settle the dispute. Pyenson had already surveyed living whale proportions and determined that the size of the whale correlated with the width of its cheek bones. So Pyenson measured or obtained these data from skulls of 63 extinct whale species and of 13 modern species and plotted them on a timeline that showed the whale family tree. The data showed that whales didn’t get really big early on, as Slater had suggested. Nor did they gradually get big over time. Instead they become moderately large and stayed that way until about 4.5 million years ago, Slater, Pyenson, and Jeremy Goldbogen at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, report today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Then baleen whales went “from relatively big to ginormous,” Slater says. Blue whales today are 30 meters long, where until 4.5 million years ago, the biggest whales were 10 meters long.