A natural crystal skull

Some time ago I visited the mineral exhibition at the museum „Welt der Kristalle“ near Rottweil. Besides a lot of really fascinating crystals and minerals and some nice fossils was a really bizarre object on exhibit, a ram skull fully overgrown with fine selenite crystals.

This skull comes from Queensland, Australia.

It´s obviously not a very old skull, and the crystals must have grown within a time of no more than some decades.


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A herring in the wolf´s clothing

Today´s blogpost features another fish skull, this time a much smaller but yet pretty impressive one, which nearly looks like a miniature version of the giant cretaceous Xiphactinus.


Dorab wolf-herring (Chirocentrus dorab) skull, Museum Schloss Rosenstein, Stuttgart

It belongs to a dorab wolf hering (Chirocentrus dorab), a member of the Clupeiformes, what makes it a close relative of herrings, anchovies and sardines. Quite in contrast to those usually filter-feeding planctivores, wolf herrings are voracious predators with huge gaping jaws and enormous teeth. Iy you look at the skull you can see not only the very large teeth in the lower jaw, but also a pair of nearly spear-like teeth in the middle of the upper jaw.


There are only two species of wolf herring, the dorab wolf herring and the whitefin wolf herring Chirocenturs nudus.

Except for the size, which doesn´t exceed a metre, the head and body shape of wolf herrings is really suprisingly reminiscent to Xiphactinus.


Dorab wolf herring, photo from Wikipedia

Here is a photo of „Mildred“, a gigantic Xiphactinus audax specimen of 5,6 m, which was kindly provided by Anthony Maltese (thanks again!).


Xiphactinus audax, photo by Anthony Maltese

Of course there are various differences, but the similarities of the overall body shape and the functional anatomy of the skull and jaws are still surprising. Here is another photo of Mildred´s giant skull, which shows the same combination of a very steep upper jaw combined with a massive mandible and big teeth:

Xiphactinus audax skull, photo by Anthony Maltese

Xiphactinus audax skull, photo by Anthony Maltese


Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Fische, Paläontologie | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Relics of a River Monster

Yesterday I had a great day visiting the Museum für Naturkunde at Schloss Rosenstein, Stuttgart, and later also the nearby Wilhelma Zoo. There was a special exhibition at the museum with a lot of specimens which are usually not on display, including a huge skull of an Atlantic salman (Salmo salar).

Huge skull of an Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), Schloss Rosenstein

Huge skull of an Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), Schloss Rosenstein

It dates back to 1858 and comes from the Rhine Falls, one of the three largest water falls of Europe. Once the river Rhine was the most important water for salmon fishery in whole Europe, but this times are long gone. As a result of overfishing, control stucture and especially heavy pollution, the Atlantic salmon fully vanished from this river by the middle of the 20th century. Since water quality has increased again and as the stream was stocked with young salmons, the species is very slowly again on the rise, but it will still take decades until it will form again healthy and self-maintaining populations.

This skull belonged to a male, what´s clearly obvious if you look at the hook-shaped jaws. If you look below the mandible, you can also see the dislocated tooth-covered boney part of the tongue.


This particular specimen was really quite big and is a good reminder that the Atlantic salmon, which reaches exeptional lengths up to around 1,5 m, is one of the largest freshwater (ok, anadromous…) fishes of continental Europe. Here is a photo of the showcase where the skull was situated, to give you an idea about its huge size:

Huge salmon skull

Huge salmon skull

The skull above it belongs to a spectacled bear and the deer skull on the right to an adult roe deer buck, the one in the middle on the left to a subadult harbor porpoise. This brings to mind that megafauna is not just a term exclusive to terrestrial animals, but that it applies to aquatic creatures as well. And alike the terrestrial megafauna, the giants of the rivers and lakes have sadly also vanished in many parts of the world. Many large streams of Europe were once full of big and even giant anadromous fishes, like the Atlantic salmon and several species of sturgeons, but all of them have decreased extremely in number or became nearly fully extinct.

Veröffentlicht unter Anatomie, Bild des Tages, Fische, Museen | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Fossil of the day: Pelagosaurus typus with fatal jaw fracture

Today I visited the fossil museum at Dotternhausen, which exhibits nearly exclusively fossils found in the surrounding area. It is located in the Swabian Alps, an area which is famous for various fossil deposits, especially for ammonites and other marine invertebrates. There are however also some very nice vertebrate fossils on display at the museum, including a spectacular fossil of a subadult Pelagosaurus typus, a small basal marine teleosaurid from the Toarcian which grew not larger than around 3 m. This particular specimen shows a quite dramatic pathology of the lower jawabone. The mandible fractured around halfway in its middle and pointed nearly rightangled downwards.


Pelagosaurus typus with fractured mandible, Fossilienmuseum Dotternhausen

This was neither a postmortal artifact nor something that happend just prior to the death of this hapless little crocodylian. It must have lived for a considerable time with this broken mandible, as the fracture healed and formed a massive callus at the ends of the fractured bones.


Broken jaw with callus

Comparable jaw fractures of lower and upper jaws are also known from modern crocodylians as well, especially very long-snouted species like gharials. Sometimes considerable parts of the jaws are even fully missing, and they are sometimes still apparantly doing well. This shows that it is not necessarily always fatal if a large part of one of the jaws is missing or so malformed that it becomes functionally absent. The very strong deformation of the mandible, the small size of the subadult specimen and the fact that this was a pelagic predator however could well indicate that the deformaty was a strong handicap for hunting and lead eventually to starvation.

Here is a photo of the whole skeleton:


Veröffentlicht unter Paläontologie, Reptilien | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Myotragus balearicus – an extinct goat with anthropomorphic face and reptile-like growth pattern

Long before the first primitive domestic goats were brought to the Balearic archipelago by early human settlers, another caprid already populated the islands of Majorca and Minorca. This remarkable ungulate, Myotragus balearicus, was about the size of a small domestic goat. It had a lot of really weird anatomical features, like eyes facing towards the front, a unique pair of perennial-growth  lower incisors which resembled somewhat those of rodents and a very shortend facial skull, somewhat resembling those of certain domestic goat breeds. It had also unusually short legs for a bovid and a strangely shaped sturdy body and a

Myotragus balearicus skull from the archeological exhibition of the Museu Diocesà de Menorca at Ciutadella, Mahon

Myotragus balearicus skull from the archeological exhibition of the Museu Diocesà de Menorca at Ciutadella, Minorca

If you look at the skull above I photographed at the Museu Diocesà de Menorca at Ciutadella, you can see the unusual direction of the orbits. The common condition in ungulates are orbits situated on the sides of the skull. Myotragus must have looked quite weird in life, nearly somewhat like an anthropomorphic animal character from a story book. Take a look of this life reconstruction in frontal view to see what I mean.


Sadly this was only a cranium without the mandible, but you can also see the very short facial skull and the quite robust molars. It had also quite small horns for a wild caprid, as even the males didn´t have larger horns than seen in this skull.


Dorsal view of the skull:


One of the most remarkable pecularities of Myotragus was its growth pattern, which was unlike any other known mammal. Its metabolism adapted to changing environmental conditions, like the availability of food, causing irregular growth patterns with intermittent phases in which growth fully ceased. It took also a very long time until they reached somatic maturity at around 12 years, what´s extremely late for such a small ungulate. This growth pattern is unique among modern mammals and resembled much more those of an ectothermic reptile.

It´s really a misfortune that we missed this extraordinairy animal only for a comparably short time. Myotragus was not one of those fabulous beasts which already became extinct tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions of years ago, but disappeared -in geological terms- quite recently, around 5000 years ago, after the Balearic Islands were populated by humans.

Myotragus balearicus restoration, Photo from Wikipedia

Myotragus balearicus restoration, Photo from Wikipedia

Surprisingly this reconstruction doesn´t even look that odd, what´s perhaps also because it resembles certain common domestic goat breeds with shortened facial skulls short horns and short legs.

Veröffentlicht unter ausgerottete Arten, Paläontologie, Säugetiere | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

The Bronze Age feral goats of Majorca

The last post covered the Cretan kri-kri, an extremely archaic feral domestic goat which still highly resemebles its wild ancestors. There are however also other, very primitive feral goats on other parts of the world, like the wild goat of Majorca, which gives us a vivid idea about the early history of their domestication.

I was lucky to encounter some of those wild goats some years ago near Alcúdia in the north-east of Majorca. There are also feral goats in many other parts of the island which are descendents of modern breeds, but the true „wild“ goat has a much more ancient origin. This goats were brought to the island around 4000 years ago by the Phoenicians.

Recent work has shown that they most likely descend from hybrids between the Cretan wild goat (Capra aegagrus cretensis) and the bezoar ibex (Capra aegagrus aegagrus).


Majorcan wild goat near Allcúdia

In contrast to the other feral goats on the island, which show a very large variation of colouration, horn shape and horn size, the wild goats are quite uniformous. They are mainly of a reddish brown, with a dark stripe running down the back and over the shoulder area to the legs and have short fur. They have always horns, which are especially impressive in the males.


The wild goats in this area are not very shy, so I could ovserve them from a very close distance.


The flight initiation distance of the goats in this particular area is quite small, and they apparantly don´t care much about the people walking around.


The total population of the wild goats is around 1000, whereas the total number of feral goats on the island is around 25.000.


Despite their very small population size, there is still limited trophy hunting for the males.


This goats show already much more differences from their ancestral forms if compared with the kri-kri, but still appear a lot like a real wild ungulate.


I could also see this irritating behavior of a billy goat. I have once seen a domestic goat in a zoo doing this too.

Don´t aks, it´s exactly what it seems to be.

Don´t ask, it´s exactly what it seems to be.

Here are some normal feral goats I photographed near Pollença.

Normal feral goats near Pollenca

Normal feral goats near Pollenca

The nature of Majorca is really awesome, and the island is worth to visit for many reasons. But if you make a holiday on the island, don´t forget to take a look at the hybrid bronze age feral goats.



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The kri-kri – a relict feral goat from the stone age of Crete

Goats were after dogs most probably the earliest animals which were domesticated by humans. This happened around 13,000 years ago in the Near East, when people started to keep and breed wild goats (Capra aegagrus) instead of just hunting them.  Goats are a source of meat, hide, fur and horns (milk and dairy products were originally probably much lesser important than in later more productive breeds), they are quite modest and comparably easy to handle, especially when compared with much larger and potentially much more dangerous ungulates like wild boars, wild horses, aurochs, water buffaloes, dromedaries and camels. For this reason, early domestic goats reached already a wide distribution and were even transported to distant islands in some cases. Sometimes those still quite wild goats became feral and lived again the lives of their undomesticated ancestors.

In the case of the kri-kri, we see the fascinating case of such a stone age goat which managed to survive into the modern times in the wilderness of the island of Crete. Originally assumed to be a subspecies of the wild goat, it was found to be a very primitive domestic form, which was brought to the island during the Neolithic Age.

When I was some years ago at Crete I had the chance to see some of those beautyful goats at the municipal park of Chania.


There was an billy goat with a huge pair of horns. As you can see on this photo, they were not just long but also extremely wide-spaced.


It used the tips of its enormous horns to groom its back and flanks.


Here is a younger male specimen which had still much shorter but already impressive horns.


A map from Wikipedia showing the location of the island of Crete:


Sadly the kri-kris suffered badly from overhunting, especially during WWII. At one time only 200 specimens were left. Today there are again around 2000 of them, which are mainly living in the remote mountain areas in the southwest of the island, in particular in the area of the Samariá gorge and the surrounding national park area. The Samariá gorge is one of the most awesome geological phenomens of Europe, and really worth to visit.


You can wander along its whole length from the mountains down to the sea. But should you ever do this, keep some important things in mind. Wear good hiking boots, as the area is really steep and you have to walk over sometimes wiggling rocks, wear headgear and use a strong sunblocker because there are longer parts nearly without any shadow, and the gorge heats up strongly in the sun. And perhaps most important of all, if you choose the way down the gorge to the small village Agia Roumeli, buy a ticket for the fairy which brings you back to the village Sougia BEFORE you start the tour.  Otherwise it can happen that you get stranded at Agia Roumeli, because the ferry is already outbooked and you have to wait for many hours at this shadow-less roasting pan-alike part of the earth. Agia Roumeli is located near to mouth of the gorge at the coast and is only accessible from the gorge or by sea.


I have sadly not seen any wild kri-kris in the gorge, but I found a corpus delicti which clearly prooved their presence:


This partially mummified skull was lying on the ground, without any surrounding bones. It is well possible that the smaller parts were already all eaten away by the bearded vultures which also populate at small numbers the gorge.


I saw also a partial kri-kri cranium with a huge pair of horn cores at the small archeological museum of Kissamos. Sadly it was not allowed to take any photos. But it could indicate that kri-kris had possibly prior to millenias of trophy-hunting and decades of genetic depletion also even bigger horns than seen today.

Veröffentlicht unter Naturbeobachtungen, Säugetiere | 1 Kommentar

Swimming with the yellow-finned redfin perches of Lake Constance

Last weekend I visited once again Lake Constance, the third largest lake of Europe, which  is located in the very south of Germany. The northern border belongs mainly to Germany, whereas the southern border belongs to Switzerland. There is even a small part of the border at the eastside of the lake which belongs to Austria.
Lake Constance (better known as Bodensee in German) is a highly interesting place for many reasons. Besides all the cultural and historical sights around, it has also a lot of zoological highlights, like the newly evolving form of sticklebacks which made the news some time ago, or a lot of rare, invasive, endemic or otherwise interesting animals. One of them is an unusual form of the common European perch or redfin perch (Perca fluviatilis). This species has a huge range over vast areas of Europe, and is by far the most common predatory fish around. So far, it was assumed that all those populations belong only to a single species, but recent research has shown that some populations in large alpine lakes could possibly be different enough to be distinct species.

The status of the European perch populations of Lake Constance and some other large lakes in Switzerland is still uncertain, but it is possible that it represents also a species of its own. They visually differ from the normal form in the colouration of the pectoral, ventral and caudal fins, which are partially brightly yellow, whereas those of the common European or redfin perch are (suprise surprise) more or less red. They also tend to have more narrow stripes. But there are also other differences. Since some time red-finned perches are also known from Lake Constance, and also specimens with partially red and partially yellow fins, which most likely represents hybrids between both forms. The yellow-finned form suffers strongly from the gillworm Ancyrocephalus percae, whereas the red-finned perches show a much bigger resistance. The supposed hybrids show a degree of parasite infestation which is in the middle between both forms. You can see some photos of both forms and the mixed form here.

I heared only a comparably short time ago about the special status of the perches of Lake Constance, so I was quite eager to take the opportunity to see some of them when I was visiting the lake. The weather at that weekend was not very good, but the water still comparably warm, so I took my diving goggles and my underwater camera in hope of seeing some interesting denizens of the lake.

I had already seen some smaller perches the two days before at the port of Constance, but I wanted to see them underwater from a closer distance too. It resulted that I didn´t find the perches, but the perches found me. I was still at only knee-deep water when I looked underwater and found that two perches were swimming around my feet. They showed no fear but were quite curious instead. When I was in deeper water, I discovered that this part of the lake was especially and unusually boring, and the bottom only covered by gravel and a single kind of low-growing waterplant. At least I could find some of the many invasive species like zebra mussels, small snails which seemed to be New Zealand mud snails (Potamopyrgus antipodarum) and two partial shedded carapaces of non-native crayfish, either Orconectes limosus or signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus).


Yellow-finned European perches (Perca fluviatilis) at Lake Constance

After some time I was swimming again in the more shallow water, and it took only a short time until I was again surrounded by a few perches. I realized they were searching for food where I had whirled up the sediment from the ground, so I intentionally scratched the gravel with my feet. Over time, more and more perches gathered around me, from 5-10 at the beginning to more than 20 at the end.


Most of the perches were still comparably small, between 10 and 15 cm, but there were also some bigger ones in the 20 cm range.


This photo shows very well the bright yellow anal fin:


In the middle of the photo one of the perches is feeding on the bottom within a cloud of sediments.


If you look at the different photos you can also see the differences in the shapes of the vertical dark stripes. Some perches have simple single stripes, others have V-or Y-shaped stripes, and some have thin pale stripes between the thick stripes or combinations of all of them.


Being surrounded by so many perches was really interesting. I was already swimming with perches in other waters and also other parts of Lake Constance, but this situation was really new to me.


But it was still surprisingly hard to take photos, even from that close distance of sometimes only 10 cm, especially because the water was not that clear.


Two or three cyprinids which seemed to be European chubs (Squalius cephalus) also joined the perches. This species is highly omnivorous and opportunistic, and bigger specimens will eat everything from fruits fallen into the water to small fish.


The part of the lakeside where I was in the water belonged to a public bathing beach, and it seems the perches in this area have learned to swim towards people in the water in hope of finding food items around them. This could also explain why I was surrounded by so many perches, as I was nearly the only one in the water at that time.

If you are not familiar with the normal form of the European perch, just take a look at this red-finned specimen from Wikimedia Commons:


The water was comparably murky, what´s unusual for most areas of Lake Constance and the sky was dull, so the conditions for taking photos underwater were sadly not very good. I really hope I will have some more luck with the weather next summer, to take more photos of the fascinating underwater fauna of Lake Constance.

Port of Constance

Port of Constance


Veröffentlicht unter Fische, Naturbeobachtungen | 2 Kommentare

Acrophyseter robustus – a new macropredatory killer sperm whale

I´ve been a big fan of archaic sperm whales since I read for the first time about Zygophyseter varolai in 2007. At that time, primitive sperm whales were still quite little known in general, and there were only a few life-reconstructions around. A lot has changed since that time, many new species have been described, and killer sperm whales have become much more well-known. Just recently, a new killer sperm whale was described, Acrophyseter robustus from the late Serravallian–Tortonian of Cerro la Bruja, of the famous Pisco formation at Peru. The whales of the genus Acrophyseter were pretty weird beasts with no modern analogue. They had big heads, very strong and upwards curved Y-shaped jaws with formidable teeth and a cranial basin for the spermaceti organ that did not extend over the whole rostrum as in modern sperm whales. All in all, Acrophyseter must have looked quite different from modern sperm whales of the genus Physeter and Kogia. Jaime Bran made a very nice life restauration of Acrophyseter robustus, which gives you an idea about its appearance.

Acrophyseter deinodon by Jaime Bran

Acrophyseter robustus by Jaime Bran

Acrophyseter robustus was moderately big, around 4-4,3 m. That is well below the size of typical orcas and more around the size of the giant dolphins of Moray Firth. Despite their comparably small size, Acrophyseter robustus and related species like Acrophyseter deinodon were most probably not just piscivores or teuthovores as most modern odontocetes, but predators of marine tetrapods like marine birds, seals, smaller cetacans and perhaps also some of the weirder denizens of the Pisco-Formation like aquatic ground sloths and marine crocodylians.

Those whales were probably comparable to some degree with modern orcas, but still very different. This is the skull of an orca from the public zoological collection at Hamburg:


Orca skull, public zoological collection Hamburg

After all, it is a quite robust and big-toothed version of a delphinid. In comparison, the skull of Acrophyseter looks like a misshapen monstrosity:

Acrophyseter deinodon skull from Wikipedia

Acrophyseter deinodon skull from Wikipedia

The difference is even more obvious when the skulls of Acrophyseter and Orcinus are compared in dorsal view. The jaws of orcas have the shape of a half ellipse and are quite broad. The jaws of Acrophyseter however are only broad in the distal area, but quite narrow on most of their length, not that different from those of modern sperm whales, but with proportionally huge upper and lower teeth.

But despite those fierce teeth, Acrophyseter and other killer sperm whales possibly looked lesser scary in life than one could think. Most depictions of killer sperm whales show them with open jaws and fully visible upper teeth, and hardly anybody cares about how this would look when the jaws were closed. But what if they had upper lips which covered those teeth in life? This is really an issue. The very large and protrusive teeth of Acrophyseter could indicate that they were at least partially visible, even when the jaws were closed. On the other hand, nearly all modern odontocetes, even specie like false killer whales with very large teeth, have still all their upper teeth covered with lips. This enables them to seal their mouths against the surrounding water. There are only very few exceptions like the Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica), which has also extremely modified jaws.

Jaime depicted his new Acrophyseter robustus with upper lips, and we had long and very interesting discussions about this topic. Here is one of the very few depictions which shows a killer sperm whale with closed jaws. It looks suddenly much more like a robust bottlenose whale and not like a toothy monster.

Acrophyseter robustus with upper lips by Jaime Bran

Acrophyseter deinodon with upper lips by Jaime Bran

Here is also a very old depictions of Zygophyseter varolai I did in 2007 (somewhat digitally modified because the picture quality was quite bad) with the upper teeth covered by lips. Unlike Acrophyseter, Zygophyseter had comparable straight jaws.


Zygophyseter varolai by Markus Bühler (2007)

We will probably never know for sure how animals like Acrophyseter really looked in life, but I tend to think that upper lips seem more plausible. There is also perhaps the possibility that most of the teeth were covered, but the most anterior teeth were bare. There is possibly a chance that microscopic examinations of the teeth could help to solve this problem, to see if there is any indication for sessile ongrowth which could have only developed when the teeth were constantly surrounded by seawater as seen in many males of beaked whales or narwhales.

There are often some typical errors in the depictions of killer sperm whales, like the position of the blowhole, which was almost certainly not at the most anterior part of the spermaceti organ as in Physeter, but in the area over the eyes, as in all other cetaceans, including pygmy and dwarf sperm whales. But this leads already to another topic which I want to discuss in a future blog entry about the gigantic killer sperm whale Livyatan melvillei.


Lambert, O., Bianucci, G. and De Muizon, C. (2016), Macroraptorial sperm whales (Cetacea, Odontoceti, Physeteroidea) from the Miocene of Peru. Zool J Linn Soc. doi:10.1111/zoj.12456

Lambert O, Bianucci G, Beatty BL. 2014. Bony outgrowths on the jaws of an extinct sperm whale support macroraptorial feeding in several stem physeteroids. Naturwissenschaften 101: 517–521.

BIANUCCI, G. and LANDINI, W. (2006), Killer sperm whale: a new basal physeteroid (Mammalia, Cetacea) from the Late Miocene of Italy. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 148: 103–131. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.2006.00228.x


Veröffentlicht unter Paläontologie, Wale | Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

A new face for Dorudon – archeocetes with stubbly beards

As I already wrote a in an earlier blogpost, archaeocetes were most probably not the skull-headed pseudo-reptilian horrors as which they have  been usually depicted since Basilosaurus was discovered in the first half of the 19th century. Sadly this trend is still going on, and even today archeocetes are commonly shown without any cheek-, lip-or nasal soft tissue and with unnaturally skinny necks.

Besides this, there is also another feature of archaeocetes, which has been nearly fully forgotten over all the years, the likely presence of short bristles or hairs on the snout and chin area.

What, archaeocetes with bearded faces? As strange as it may sound at first, there are actully good reasons why early whales had quite probably some sort of facial hair. Here is a modified version of my earlier reconstruction of Dorudon atrox to give you an idea how this could have looked:

Dorudon atrox bearded all around

Dorudon atrox with vibrissae by Markus Bühler

The idea to write a blog-post about archaeocetes with facial hair started when Nic Grabow asked me some time ago for my opinion about a more unconventional reconstruction of Basilosaurus he did, which included several  quite „terrestrial“ traits like some sparse body hair, extensive facial soft tissue and short bristles on the upper lips and snout.


Basilosaurus with bristly snout by Nic Grabow

Whales evolved from archaic ungulates, animals which were originally still fully covered in fur. Their closest modern relatives, hippos and pygmy hippos, have only an extremely sparse vestige of the body hair of their ancestors, with only a few isolated hairs covering their skin. Their fleshy lips, the area below the nostrils and the chin are however still densely covered with short bristle-like hairs.


Hippo mouth closeup, photo from Wikimedia Commons

Carnivores like cats for example, have often quite noticeable whiskers, which are much longer and thicker than the other hairs. Seals in particular, which rely highly on the mechanoreceptive function of their vibrissae, have often very impressive whiskers. The  longest vibrissae are found in the Anarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella), with a record of 48 cm for the longest single vibrisse known (more about pinnipeds vibrissae in this older blogpost). In ungulates however, those vibrissae are normally much lesser noticeable, shorter and thinner. Interestingly they are often also comparably numerous below the lower lips in the chin area, as can be seen on this close-up of the mouth of a yak. Another example which shows very well the vibrissae of a deer can be seen here.

Here is a nice photo which was taken by a friend of me several years ago at the Zoo of San Diego. You can see the fine stiff vibrissae very well:


Hippo vibrissae, San Diego Zoo, photo taken by Jan Haas

Each of those hairs grows out of a small foveola in the skin. Vibrissae are different from normal hairs and have a tactile function. The large follicles of the vibrissae include a special capsule of blood, a so-called blood sinus. It is very well innervated and has together with the embedded hair a mechanocereptive function.

P1010435 2

Now what´s really interesting is that vibrissae are also found in some whales as well. Right whales for example have quite numerous short vibrissae on the middle of their upper lip and more broadly on the lower lips, in a quite similar arrangement as those of hippos. Furthermore, bowhead whales have also around 10 vibrissae behind the blowhole.


North Atlantic right whale from Wikimedia Commons

Each of the around 250-300 vibrissae is situated in a small pit in the skin.

Moira_Brown_-_MWB_0195-NEA-S4 small

Here is another photo of right whale vibrissae.

In gray whales, which mainly feed on invertebrates which they sieve out of the sediments, the head is also covered with a lot of sensory pits and fine vibrissae. A nice photo which shows those hairs can be seen here.

The weird turberles along the rostrum and lower jaw of the humpback whale are also highly innervated modified vibrissae.


Humpback whale head with tubercles. Source Wikimedia Commons

You can see the fine hairs in the centre of the tubercles here. The exact purpose of those tubercles is still not fully known, but they act quite probably as sensory organs, perhaps connected with the unusual feeding behavior of humpback whales or for social interaction. A role for swimming was also suggested.

It is quite interesting that numerous and sometimes highly derived vibrissae are still found in modern baleen whales, even among very different families with very different feeding behaviors like mainly microplanctivorous right whales, krill- and fish-eating rorquals and bottomfeeding invertebrate-eating gray whales. It is likely that those vibrissae have more than just a single function, and assist not only during hunting and feeding, but also for social contacts with other whales and perhaps also for swimming.

Given the fact that baleen whales lack the highly derived echolaction of modern odontocetes and have also only limited eyesight, it is even possible that those vibrissae could even have a much more important role for food gathering than usually assumed. How do they find their prey? They clearly doesn´t just open their mouths anywhere on spec in hope of getting something to eat. Especially those baleen whales like humpback whales, minke whales or sei whales which feed also on fish (in some cases even on surprisingly large ones), have to target their prey items specifically, even if they are swimming in swarms. It was just recently discovered that rorquals possess a unique sensory organ in the area of the mandibular symphysis, which is also just the area where their mandibular vibrisae are located. This already leads to another highly complex topic, so I´ll make a break here.

As we´ve seen, vibrissae are pretty common in baleen whales. But what about odontocetes? They seem to play a much lesser important role in most modern toothed whales, most probably because they rely mainly on echolocation. An exception are the Amazon river dolphins of the genus Inia, which have very well developed short bristles on their elongated jaws.

Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), Source Wikimedia Commons

Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), Source Wikimedia Commons

Here is also a close-up photo of an Amazon river dolphin with bristles. This bristles are most probably an adaption for the often quite tanine-rich and murky waters in which those freshwater dolphins are living. In contrast to the true vibrissae of the baleen whales, the bristles on the snout of the Amazon river dolphins lack a blood sinus, but have also a highly enervated follicle. Vibrissae are found in other odontocetes as well, but they are usually shed prenatally or shortly after birth. The follicles however remain, and can persit as so called hair-pits or vibrissal crypts, which were shown in Guiana dolphins (Sotalia guianensis) to act as functional electrosensitive organs.

So given the fact that the terrestrial and semiaquatic ungulate ancestors of modern whales surely had vibrissae, and vibrissae are still found in modern whales, especially those which have no echolocation, it seems highly probable that archaeocetes had functional and noticeable vibrissae as well. They were quite probably not as derived as the tubercles of the humpback whale or the vibrissal crypts or certain odontocetes. As those archaic predatory whales still had no echolocation and probably also didn´t just rely on eyesight underwater, it would make sense if their vibrissae were still well developed. Of course it is really hard to say how numerous or noticeable they were. Perhaps somewhere between those of a hippo and those of baleen whales and Amazon river dolphins.

I depicted my updated version of Dorudon with vibrissae on the forepart of the mandible and upper jaw, plus some isolated vibrissae behind the nostrils. It is however also well possible that they extended from the whole area of the rostrum up to the nostrils, and that this reconstruction of a bearded archaeocete is even still too subtle. Perhaps they had even such noticeable vibrissae as modern hippos, what would have given them an even more unfamiliar appearance.

It seems after all much more likely that archaeocetes had still visible vibrissae than they had none. One of the earliest depictions of an archaeocete with extensive bristles was made by my good friend Cameron McCormick, who made this really interesting reconstruction drawing of the bizarre protocetid Makaracetus bidens with extensive lips and manatee-styled bristles.

Makaracetus bidens reconstruction with fleshy lips and vibrissae by Cameron McCormick

Makaracetus bidens reconstruction with fleshy lips and vibrissae by Cameron McCormick

Makaracetus was most probably a durophagous molluscivore, which fed mainly on shellfish. Extensive mechanosensitive vibrisae on its lips and chin, comparable to those of walruses, seems quite likely for an animal which found its prey items mainly on or within the sediments of the coastal seafloor. This could also apply for the small archaic baleen whale Mammalodon.

There is also an old reconstruction model of the super-weird delphinoid Odobenocetops peruvianus with extensively bristled lips in a paper by Christian de Muizon from 1993. As Odobenocetops was an extremely specialized bottom feeding molluscivore, it seems not unplausible that it really had vibrissae on its lips, but more derived organs like vibrissal crypts could be equally likely.

Right down the line, it seems really justified to depict archaeocetes not just with more extensive facial soft tissue, but with more or less noticeable vibrissae as well. The depiction of „bearded“ archaeocetes would be of course nowhere as revolutionairy as for example those of feathered theropods, but it would still affect the way in which we would look at those fascinating forerunners of modern whales.


Czech, N. (2007) Functional morphology and postnatal transformation of vibrissal crypts in toothed whales (odontoceti). Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Universitätsbibliothek

Drake. SE. (2015) Sensory Hairs in the Bowhead Whale, Balaena mysticetus (Cetacea, Mammalia). THE ANATOMICAL RECORD 298:1327–1335

Pyenson, N. D., J. A. Goldbogen, A. W. Vogl, G. Szathmary, R. L. Drake and R. E. Shadwick. 2012. Discovery of a sensory organ that coordinates lunge-feeding in rorqual whales. Nature 485: 498-501. doi: 10.1038/nature11135

Czech-Damal, N.U., Liebschner, A., Miersch, L., Klauer, G., Hanke, F.D., Marshall, C.D., Dehnhardt, G., and Hanke, W. 2011. Electroreception in the Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis). Proceeding of the Royal Society B, doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.1127

Dolphin Communication and Cognition: Past, Present, and Future. Denise L. Herzing and Christine M. Johnson, eds. 2015. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. 328

Marine mammal physiology : requisites for ocean living / edited by Michael A. Castellini, Graduate School, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska, USA, Jo-Ann Mellish, North Pacific Research Board, Anchorage, Alaska, USA

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