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Whale evolution

Registration is open for the 2019 Short Course. Please click here for the registration form.

Whale watching through time: new insights into whale evolution, ecology, and adaptation

Whales have an evolutionary history stretching back more than 40 million years when primitive cetaceans first took to the sea. These marine mammals include the largest animals ever to have lived on Earth, making them the subject of both popular and scientific fascination. Research on modern whales' size, morphology, migratory patterns, and sensory mechanisms continues to be informed by their fossil record, which also raises new questions about their unique adaptive and evolutionary transformations. Please join us to explore the latest research on whales from prominent biologists and paleontologists.

Saturday, March 2, 2019
2050 Valley Life Sciences Building, UC Berkeley
9:00 am to 4:00 pm


We've updated the agenda below. The remaining talk descriptions will be updated soon!




Welcome, logistics, and introduction by Lisa White


Lost in transition: from teeth to baleen
Annalisa Berta, San Diego State University

The Earth's largest animal, the blue whale, survives almost exclusively feeding on the smallest animals in the ocean. How does a behemoth survive on such small prey? The answer lies in the whale's mouth, and specifically its baleen, rows of flexible hair-like plates, used by all living baleen whales (mysticetes) to filter their food. The earliest baleen whales evolved 33-36 million years ago and fed differently, hunting prey using powerful, sturdy jaws lined with teeth. One of the most extraordinary transformations in whale evolution is the transition from tooth-aided predation to filter feeding with baleen. This stepwise transition involved an intermediate feeding style in which some fossil mysticetes likely used both teeth and baleen to capture food. New discoveries of ancient species along with state-of-the-art CT scanning technology documenting tooth loss in fetal specimens is helping researchers understand this transition that heralded the evolution of modern baleen whales.


A Neotropical Perspective: Evolutionary History of Dwarf and Pygmy Sperm Whales
Jorge Velez-Juarbe, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

The sperm whale is the largest living toothed whale and is characterized by a gigantic specialized structure that sits in its snout called the spermaceti organ. However, its two lesser-known relatives, the pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, are quite the opposite, having a proportionately smaller spermaceti organ as well as body size. This raises question regarding the reasons and timing of these differences. In this presentation we will explore the fossil record of sperm whales and look into new discoveries from the Neotropics that allow us to go back in time and look at the evolutionary history of this group and explore potential answers to these questions.


Evolution of echolocation in toothed whales
Rachel A. Racicot, W.M. Keck Science Center

The ability to echolocate (navigate using sound) is a key evolutionary adaptation that has arisen independently in multiple animal groups, most noticeably in the toothed whales, or odontocetes. Pinpointing when and how echolocation arose in this group is a crucial area of research that can tell us much about the evolution of fully aquatic sensory systems, and may hold vital clues that will help us understand and conserve these charismatic animals. This talk explores our current understanding of the anatomy and evolution of echolocation in odontocetes, in particular through the use of non-destructive imaging techniques such as computed tomography ('CT'). Whale fossils that are shedding fresh light on the key interval in evolutionary history when echolocation likely evolved will also be discussed.


Break for lunch (on your own)


Biomechanics of whale swimming and feeding
Jeremy Goldbogen

(Talk description coming soon)


So, you want to live in the water? A tale of why aquatic mammals are so big
William Gearty, Stanford University

It's summertime and you're sweating from the heat and humidity. You jump in the pool and feel a rush of relief as you suddenly feel cooler. The water might not be colder than the air, but it sure feels like it, and it does a great job of relieving you from the heat. We're all familiar with this, but did you know it may also explain why whales are so big? This presentation will present a number of different possibilities for why aquatic mammals are so big. I will then discuss how I've narrowed down the options using the sizes of modern and fossil organisms and some basic physiological principles. Ultimately, I hope to convince you that, contrary to popular belief, living in water appears to impose stronger selective pressures on these organisms than does living on land.


Humpback whales in the Bay Area
Tim Markowitz and Bill Keener

(Talk description coming soon)


Open questions


About the Speakers

Annalisa Berta is Professor Emerita in the Biology Department at San Diego State University. She is a vertebrate paleontologist who studies the anatomy, evolution and systematics of various fossil and living marine mammals, especially pinnipeds and whales. Currently, she is writing a book with fellow paleontologist Susan Turner “Bone Hunters: the History of Women in Vertebrate Paleontology. She earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

Jorge Velez-Jurabe is the Assistant Curator of Marine Mammals (living and extinct) at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. His main research interests are the morphology, systematics, and biology of fossil and extant marine mammals. Specifically, he aims to understand the dynamics of ancient communities by looking into diversity patterns, extinctions and evolutionary history of particular groups.

Rachel A. Racicot is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology at the W.M. Keck Science Center of Claremont McKenna, Scripps, and Pitzer Colleges. She studies the evolution of marine mammal sensory systems by nondestructively examining the inner ear and "virtual" brains using innovative imaging techniques including microCT scanning of fossil and modern whales and other marine mammals. Rachel earned her B.S. from The University of Texas at Austin, her M.S. from San Diego State University, and her PhD from Yale University.

Jeremy Goldbogen Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University (Bio coming soon)

William Gearty is a PhD candidate at Stanford University where he studies the coevolution of life and the Earth. His research aims to better understand the constraints and drivers of evolution as our planet has changed through time, and he is currently interested in focusing on how moving from a terrestrial lifestyle to an aquatic one (or vice versa) impacts the evolution of the body size of a group of organisms.

Tim Markowitz and Bill Keener UC Berkeley (Bios coming soon)


NOTE: Parking is always a problem on and near the campus. We strongly recommend taking public transportation. If this is not possible, public parking in the campus vicinity is indicated on the UC Berkeley Parking and Transportation website.

Questions? Contact Lisa White.

Read about past UCMP short courses.

This short course is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Natural History Museums (BNHM) and Science@Cal.