The evolution of baleen: evidence from molecules and morphology

Dolphins, porpoises and whales together comprise the order Cetacea. This order can be further split into two suborders; the odontocetes (“toothed whales” such as orca), and the mysticetes (“baleen whales” such as the blue whale). Baleen whales do not possess teeth, instead they have plates of baleen, a tough bristly substance which hangs from the upper jaw and is used in filter feeding. Unlike teeth, baleen is not made from dentine and enamel but from keratin, the same substance as your fingernails.

During feeding baleen whales open their mouths to take in massive quantities of water containing zooplankton such as small fish and crustaceans, they then close their mouths and, using their tongue, expel the water through the baleen plates trapping their prey in the process. Using this feeding technique the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) may take in and expel more than 70 tons of water in one go!

Baleen plates can be clearly seen in the jaw of this humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). They act as a sieve, filtering out small crustaceans and fish from the water.

Despite their planktonivorous diet baleen whales can grow to be extremely large. At 180 tons the blue whale is the largest animal ever to have lived.

Baleen does not fossilise well, however, the ancestry of mysticete whales can be deduced from other skeletal features and from DNA. What we now know is that although all modern day mysticetes possess baleen, ancestral species, such as Janjucetus, did not, they possessed teeth as modern day odontocetes do. This means that at some point in the evolution of mysticete whales teeth were replaced by baleen. How this transition occurred is the subject of a 2008 paper by Thomas Deméré et al.

The paper provides two lines of evidence to show that baleen whales did indeed evolve from toothed ancestors. The first is palaeontological evidence based on a fossil whale, Aetiocetus weltoni, that has been dated to be 24-28 million years old. The second line of evidence is molecular, based on DNA sequences.

But first the palaeontological evidence. Deméré and his colleagues examined the fossilised skull of the mysticete whale Aetiocetus weltoni, which, unlike modern day species, possessed teeth. This was a species that existed before teeth had been replaced by baleen. However, upon closer examination of the jaw, small grooves known as “nutrient foramina” were found. These grooves are also found in modern baleen whales and conduct the passage of nerves and arteries to the epithelium of the palate to provide nourishment for the baleen which grows continuously. These slits are not found in any odontocete whales.

The fossil skull of Aetiocetus weltoni showing the palate. The image on the left shows the whole skull (minus the lower jaw). The image on the right is a close up of the image on the left (the area marked by the white box) and clearly shows both teeth and nutrient foramina, this indicates that this whale had both teeth and baleen. Click to enlarge.

Nutrient foramina were also found in two other fossil mysticete whales of a similar age, Aetiocetus cotylalveus and Chonecetus goedertorum. What this suggests is that these species had both teeth and baleen. They are transitional forms.

The second line of evidence is molecular and based on DNA sequences. Given the hypothesis that toothless mysticetes evolved from toothed ancestors, it was predicted that the genes for making teeth (the secretory calcium binding phosphoprotein (SCPP) gene family) would persist in the genomes of modern day baleen whales but in a non-functional state. In other words, once released from the selective constraints of natural selection (due to disuse) random mutations acquired over time should have rendered these genes inactive but still be clearly recognisable to biologists as SCPP genes.

This is exactly what was found. DNA sequences taken from 12 species of modern day baleen whales showed the presence of enamel specific SCPP genes (AMBN, ENAM and DMP1). In mysticetes two of these genes had become completely non-functional due to frame-shift mutations, DNA insertions and deletions and premature stop codons which cause the synthesis of proteins to terminate too early. As a result of mutations the authors suggest that the genes AMBN and ENAM are now decaying pseudogenes.

One final piece of compelling evidence for the toothed ancestry of mysticete whales comes from development. Below is an image of a fin whale foetus with a section of the jaw dissected away. Fin whales do not have teeth, however, what this image shows is that in the embryo baleen whales do develop tooth buds. These develop from cells called odontoblasts which secrete dentin, but, unlike in odontocetes, this is never covered with enamel to form complete teeth. In mysticetes the teeth buds do not break the gumline but are reabsorbed before birth. Tooth buds no longer serve any function to mysticete whales but do provide strong evidence as to their ancestry.

This image shows the embryo of a fin whale, Balaenoptera physalus, with the flesh around the upper jaw dissected away to show the tooth buds. The developing teeth do not form enamel, do not break the gum line and are reabsorbed before birth. Click to enlarge.

So what does this all mean? We now know that around 30 million years ago the transition from teeth to baleen was underway in the mysticete lineage. At this time species such as Aetiocetus weltoni would have had both teeth and baleen. By acting as a sieve baleen would have enabled these species to catch smaller prey and thereby have access to a greater range of food sources. They may have been better fed enabling them to produce more offspring and so increase the proportion of animals carrying genes for baleen in the next generation. As filter feeding proved to be a highly successful strategy it gradually came to replace teeth entirely.

The fantastic image below is by Carl Buell and shows what Aetiocetus weltoni may have looked like with both teeth and baleen.

This image by Carl Buell shows what Aetiocetus weltoni may have looked like. Note the presence of both teeth and baleen.


Demere T.A., McGowen M.R., Berta A. & Gatesy J. (2008). Morphological and Molecular Evidence for a Stepwise Evolutionary Transition from Teeth to Baleen in Mysticete Whales, Systematic Biology, 57 (1) 15-37. DOI:

8 thoughts on “The evolution of baleen: evidence from molecules and morphology

  1. gil

    hi. from what i know this pseudogene are help in the development of the whale .

    buy the way-

    if a self replicat robot with dna need a designer why not a self replicat ape?

    check also this site:

    http:// creation .com/

    1. Hi Gil, In response to your first comment, pseudogenes by their very nature are genes which have degraded by mutation and are no longer functional. As such they cannot perform any role in development. We can tell that they were once funtional genes due to gene-like features contained within them such as promoter regions and due to their similarity in some cases to genes which are still functional in closely related species. If you want more information on this I suggest the wikipedia page on pseudogenes which describes them in detail.

      In response to your second comment, living things are fundamentlly different from robots in that they self replicate with slight variation in each generation (you are not the same as your parents for example). This variation provides the raw material on which natural selection acts driving evolutionary change. This is the explanation which best explains the diversity of life as we now see it. It is supported not only by genetics but also by the fossil record, by anatomical similarities between animal groups, by patterns of developement and by the geographical distribution of animals across the planet. All these streams of evidence are independent of one another and yet lead to the same conclusion. That life evolved over time, starting around 3.5 billion years ago is now overwhelmingly supported by scientific evidence and is the consensus view of the scientific community.

  2. gil

    hi again.

    “pseudogenes by their very nature are genes which have degraded by mutation and are no longer functional. “-

    now we know that a lots of “pseudogenes” have a functions.

    “In response to your second comment, living things are fundamentlly different from robots in that they self replicate with slight variation in each generation”-

    yes. and because of that i talk about a self replicat robot with dna. is that kind of robot need a designer?

    ” All these streams of evidence are independent of one another and yet lead to the same conclusion. That life evolved over time”-

    i dont think so. can you give me your best example?

    have a nice day.

  3. “now we know that a lots of “pseudogenes” have a functions”

    Whether or not psuedogenes have any benefit to the organism at all may be debateable but it is clear that were once protein coding genes, and now they are not. Therefore they either have no function or function very differently to how they did in the past. I think that is quite clear from what I wrote.

    “yes. and because of that i talk about a self replicat robot with dna. is that kind of robot need a designer?”

    A self replicating robot that uses DNA would be a living thing, and no it would not need a designer. You are of course free to beleive what you wish.

    “i dont think so. can you give me your best example?”

    Because you don’t think so makes no difference to the facts. What I’ve written about in this post is a pretty good example I think and I have put references at the bottom so you can read those too for more detail. There are plenty more examples online, or try reading Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne.

    It seems to me that you have no interest in actually learning anything and have just come hear to try and promote creationism. This is not the place to do it. I am intersested in science and not religion, if you want to discuss science feel free to post comments but I have no interest in discussing creationism or the existence of god.

    1. gil

      hi again sam.

      ok . lets talk only about evolution. first, what is the best evidence that 2 organisem share commondesnt?

      second- if the evolution is a scientific theory, how can we test it or diisprove it?

      have a nice day

      1. Gil, this really really isn’t the place to discuss the facts of evolution. There are plenty of places online where you can do that, just google it. If you want to discuss the content of this post that’s fine, but discussing the evidence that two animals share common descent is not was I was writing about here.

        Wikipedia has a very good article on the evidence for evolution here: I suggest you read it.

  4. S.J. Brady

    Informative article, I’m currently taking a Whales and Whaling course and your article was helpful. I also enjoyed the comments posted above, you handled yourself nicely.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s