The pygmy right whale has fascinated scientists since its discovery in the 1800s. It’s an uncommon sight, and its peculiar arched, frown-like snout is unlike any other whale alive today.
According to new research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the reason that the pygmy right whale stands out so much might be that it’s the last survivor in a group of whales that are believed to have gone extinct roughly 2 million years ago.
“The living pygmy right whale is, if you like, a remnant, almost like a living fossil,” explains 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.”
Pygmy right whales are known to roam the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere, but very little data has been collected on them. It’s believed that they grow no longer than 21 feet long, which makes it the smallest of all the baleen whales.
Researchers say that, upon looking at the creature’s skull, it became clear that it more closely resembled a group of whales called cetotheres, which first appeared 15 million years ago before going extinct 13 million years later.
The findings help explain how pygmy whales evolved and may also help shed light on how these ancient “lost” whales lived. The new information is also a first step in reconstructing the ancient lineage all the way back to the point when all members of this group first diverged, he said, according to Live Science.
The news comes a day after researchers from the University of Georgia and Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary announced the discovery of a five-foot-long bone belonging to an Atlantic gray whale, which is believed to have gone extinct at some point after the 1700s.