This episode is supported by The Great Courses
Plus. We know whales as graceful giants. Some are powerful hunters. Some are gentle filter feeders. But no matter what they eat or how they live,
whales — as we know them — are bound to the sea. But! There was actually a time when whales could
walk. The tale of whale evolution is a story about
one of the most remarkable transitions in the history of mammals. The fossil record shows how these animals
transformed from tiny, four-legged plant-eaters no bigger than house cats to the sea-faring
giants we know today. This change was dramatic, and … kinda fast. Fossils from over the past 50 million years
have revealed whale-like animals of all shapes and sizes, each like a piece in the puzzle
of whales’ evolution. Smack in the middle of this amazing transformation
is Ambulocetus: a toothy predator the size of a sea lion — and a striking example of
a mammal order in transition. Ambulocetus lived about 48 million years ago,
in what’s now northern India and Pakistan. And its full name, Ambulocetus natans, literally
means the walking, swimming whale. But scientists will tell you that it wasn’t
really great at either. In the water, it was a powerful swimmer, but
not very fast or efficient. On land it was clumsy too, with legs that
splayed out to the sides, a belly that almost dragged on the ground, and a snout that was
so long and heavy, it looked like it could barely lift its head. But Ambulocetus was perfectly equipped for
its environment. It lived in partly freshwater environments,
like river deltas, where it lurked in the shallows and grabbed whatever prey that came
near its giant snout. Now, if a long, aquatic ambush predator sounds
kind of familiar, that’s because Ambulocetus is basically the mammal version of…a crocodile. It lived a lifestyle that was a lot like a
crocodylian’s — ideal for an animal that lives between land and water. But despite their similarities, crocodiles
and whales are not directly related at all. In fact, the group of mammals that includes
whales and dolphins — known as cetaceans — are so different from other living mammals
that it’s been hard to figure out what exactly they evolved from. Interestingly, research done both in the field and in
the lab revealed some surprises. First, in the 1980s and 90s, a set of genetic
studies took sequences of DNA from whales and compared them to the same sequences in
other living animals. And these comparisons showed that cetaceans
are actually most closely related to a group known as artiodactyls, hoofed mammals that
includes hippos, pigs, and deer. Then, a number of fossils found a little later
seemed to support this same conclusion. In 2007, paleontologists in Kashmir, India,
found the fossil of a 47 million year old hoofed creature the size of a house cat that
they named Indohyus. But, it turned out that this tiny mammal had
a specialized, thickened ear bone that, until this discovery, has only been found in whales. The bone — called an involucrum– helps aquatic
mammals hear underwater, and it shows up even in the earliest cetaceans. It also had other adaptations for life in
water, like really dense leg bones, a trait that helps keep mammals like hippos weighted
down when they’re walking through a river. But! Indohyus wasn’t a cetacean. It had four legs and hooves for crying out loud! It even had a special ankle bone, called an
astragalus, shaped kind of like a pulley. And that feature is only found in artiodactyls. Some very early cetaceans have this ankle
bone, too, which tells us that cetaceans evolved from artiodactyls. So, Indohyus is now largely considered the
closest non-cetacean relative of whales. Unlike Ambulocetus, it’s not a member of
the immediate whale family, but it shares a common ancestor with them, helping to connect
today’s artiodactyls. In other words, if Ambulocetus represents
the transition from land to water, then Indohyus represents the transition from artiodactyls
to whales. By the time the first recognizable whales,
like Basilosaurus, show up in the fossil record about 40 million years ago, this group of
mammals would never come out of the water again. But there’s still the question of … why. Why would cute little deer-things end up leading
a whole order of mammals to life in the deep sea? That’s a question that remains unanswered. Maybe there were fewer predators in the sea
than on land 50 million years ago. Or maybe there was more food in the oceans,
and less competition for it. After all, from Indohyus to Ambulocetus, there
are many adaptations that show that the diet of these animals changed from land-based sources
to aquatic prey. But food probably isn’t the whole reason. Whales are predators, but the only other mammals
that moved from land to water are manatees and dugongs, and they’re both herbivores. So, as in many other areas of natural history,
we don’t have all the answers yet. But still, let’s just pause to appreciate
the fact that it took less than 20 million years — about the evolutionary equivalent
of a lunch break! — for this entire, astonishing transition to take place. And there in the middle is the walking swimming
whale, linking whales as we know them to tiny, cat-sized deer-things, just dipping their
toes in the water for the first time. Thanks to The Great Courses Plus for supporting
PBS Digital Studios. The Great Courses Plus is a digital learning
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or even how to cook, play chess, or become a photographer. New subjects, lectures, and professors are
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one month trial by clicking the link below or going to TheGreatCoursesPlus.com/Eons What do you want to know about the story of life on Earth? Let us know in the comments below And don’t forget to go to YouTube.com/Eons and subscribe Now don’t stop exploring! Check out some of our sister channels from PBS Digital Studios and find out what you’ll discover next

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. im sure someone has commented on this already, but it's really cool how you always wear a corresponding pin

  2. Mammals: imma evolve traits optimum for a terrestrial habitat
    Whales: Uno reverse card

  3. Actually, there is an animal that is considered to be an actual full-fledged Cetacean, but looked a whole lot like Indohyus, hooves and all. It's called Pakicetus and it lived a few million years before Ambulocetus in the same region (modern day Pakistan, that's where it gets its name), so it's literally the missing link between Artiodactyls and Cetaceans. Surprised it wasn't mentioned in the video.

  4. Ocean animals evolved to live on land
    Whales : "Meh…I prefer the ocean"
    Evolution : "Am I a joke to you ? 😑"

  5. I always wonder about what types of animals will be on the planet in the future, perhaps after we are gone, or have evolved ourselves. We are headed towards a critical change in global climate and there could be creatures evolving that we would never have imagined.

  6. I was told Actor Errol Flynn's Father is the one who determined the time period Whales returned to the Sea .

  7. I love pbs eons but it bothers me how often I hear the term “evolved from” it’s such misleading language and misrepresents what evolution really is, feeding anti science morons the world over. How about “a branching group” or just a “split”. Using language like that gives a much more intuitive picture of evolution as it really is imho. I’ve come across so many people who don’t “believe” in evolution, like that’s a valid statement, and when I talk to them it become abundantly clear quickly that they all fundamentally misunderstand what’s actually happening as animals evolve. Part of it I think is how unintuitive an number like 25 million or 100 million is. We just don’t come across clear quantities that large in everyday life, so something as comparatively minuscule like a human lifespan doesn’t come close to granting the sense of scale of evolution. A bit of a tangent but just my observations on why many people seem to completely misunderstand and often reject the most groundbreaking model of life in human history

  8. Other mammals making the transition from land to water enough to become less optimal for land movement: seals and otters (just not finished making the transition yet).

  9. snails evolve from birds, and the bombardiet beetles evolve from leeches • and the ostriches evolve from a lizard.

  10. why does quantum fabric prescribe the information for life? does dna predate it?to what end? what goal? knowlege? relationships? moderation? proclivity? why!?!

  11. That would be cool if crocodiles and alligators were on their evolutionary way to being huge terrifying reptilian whales and also terrifying 😂😂

  12. Whales might have walked back in the day, but they probably gave it up pretty quick. You would hear 'em coming a mile away with them big ol' floppy flippers.

  13. This only shows us that this little mammal was never meant to be a savage predator from the start but a friendly giant.

  14. What the frick Google. The coincidence is to damn strong.
    I am on a ferry right know and saw a dolphin jumping out of the river and thought….what kind of creatures they would have been when they had legs, opened youtube after few minutes and saw this.

    Edit: 0:58 what the frick again…. I'm on the Ganges right now

  15. Pinnipeds are predators and also went from land to water. So not just Sirenians went into the sea from land

  16. I absolutely love when a presenter has a "this thing is really adorable and I want you to see it" voice when talking about little creatures etc lol. We just can't help it

  17. does anybody know the name of the background music that starts at 1:08? It must be from APM music like the credits say but can't find the title.