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'Extinct' whale found: Odd-looking pygmy whale traced back 2 million years

Extinct whale found? Well, sort of. Scientists have traced the lineage of the pygmy right whale back to an ancient family of whales called cetotheres, who were thought to be extinct.

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The pygmy whale, a cetacean that looks radically different from all living whales, is actually the last living member of a group thought to have gone extinct 2 million years ago
Credit:

Darryl Wilson, University of Otago/LiveScience.com

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The pygmy right whale, a mysterious and elusive creature that rarely comes to shore, is the last living relative of an ancient group of whales long believed to be extinct, a new study suggests.

The findings, published Tuesday, Dec. 18, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, may help to explain why the enigmatic marine mammals look so different from any other living whale.

"The living pygmy right whale is, if you like, a remnant, almost like a living fossil," said Felix Marx, a paleontologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand. "It's the last survivor of quite an ancient lineage that until now no one thought was around."

Living fossil

The relatively diminutive pygmy right whale, which grows to just 21 feet (6.5 meters) long, lives out in the open ocean. The elusive marine mammals inhabit the Southern Hemisphere and have only been spotted at sea a few dozen times. As a result, scientists know almost nothing about the species' habits or social structure.

The strange creature's arched, frownlike snout makes it look oddly different from other living whales. DNA analysis suggested pygmy right whales diverged from modern baleen whales such as the blue whale and the humpback whale between 17 million and 25 million years ago. However, the pygmy whales' snouts suggested they were more closely related to the family of whales that includes the bowhead whale. Yet there were no studies of fossils showing how the pygmy whale had evolved, Marx said. [In Photos: Tracking Humpback Whales]

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