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Alan B. Nichols: Gray Whales

Grays' Origins Revealed in Fossil Records
ambulocetus: precursor to whales
ambulocetus: half-walking-and-swimming
carnivore precursor to whales

The gray whale was “first known to science on the basis of subfossil remains in Europe," according to James Mead, curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. A fossil uncovered in 1861 in Sweden and estimated to be 4,000-6,000 years old, was believed to be a new species of finner whale, but had a strong resemblance to the structure of today’s gray.

A second skeleton excavated in 1829 in Cornwall, England, fit the description of a gray whale, but it wasn’t officially designated such until 1872. A third skeleton find in 1861 in England was very similar to that in Sweden.  Initially thought to be a species of humpback whale, the specimen was sufficiently different from known humpbacks to warrant identification as a separate subgenus. In 1865, it was elevated to full generic rank and assigned to the subgenus, Eschrichtius.

Another thread in this historical fabric is traced to 1725 when accounts of what Mead called “an enigmatic whale,” known as a scrag whale, were published. In his monograph, “Atlantic Gray Whales,” Mead concludes that, based on detailed descriptions of this species, the scrag whale and the gray whale were one and the same.

Atlantic graywhale distribution
red: Atlantic grays' range before they became extinct. green: Pacific herds' range

In 1937, fossil finds in the Netherlands turned out to have skeletal structures nearly identical to the Pacific gray whale as to make a distinction arguable.  That same year saw the publication of a 17th Century account of a whale called the “otto sotta,” whose description fit that of a gray whale, according to Mead. The theory that gray whales were widely distributed throughout the north Atlantic was further strengthened by 16th Century accounts in Iceland of a whale designated sandloegia which had striking similarities with gray whales. These accounts were published in 1970. Gray whales also inhabited US waters, as attested to by numerous skeletal remains found up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

 It is believed that the Atlantic gray whale stock disappeared in the 18th Century.

Grays Migrate to the Pacific

How and why gray whales appeared in the Pacific is unclear. Some speculate that the melting ice at the end of the glacial age enabled the species to migrate through the Northwest Passage to the Pacific northwest where eventually one stock split off and migrated to the western Pacific.  Today, there are an estimated 200 individuals in the western Pacific or Korean stock that was decimated by Russian, Japanese and Korean commercial whalers. The California gray whale stock would have faced a similar fate had not Mexico, the US and the UN not stepped in to save them.

The origin of gray whales is a mystery. The only intact whale skeleton similar to that of a gray whale was found in 1970 on Palos Verdes peninsula in California. Through carbon dating, scientists traced the specimen to the Pleistocene Period and determined from the soil strata that the individual was around 100,000 years old. According to ScienceDaily.com, gray whales may have been on Earth 30 million years ago.

Whales' Features Indicate Higher Evolution

Anatomically gray whales are much different from most other mysticetes, and scientists have no ancestral data to explain it. Morphologically grays are highly evolved in contrast to fin, blue and humpback whales whose features are more primitive.  Grays with their arched nose, heavy long jaws and thick baleen bristles suggest a relatively high level of evolution, according to Lawrence Barnes, vertebrate paleontologist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.  “On a scale of one to 10,” he tells Eye of the Whale author Dick Russell, “gray whales are at eight or nine as far as being highly changed from the ancient whales.”

mammal timeline
mysticetes' place in geologic time

It is believed that the terrestrial progenitors of whales were short-legged, long-nosed land carnivores called mesonychids and that whales may have directly descended from Ambulocetus,  a half-walking, half-whale-like creature that inhabited estuaries and rivers millions of years ago. Genetically, the closest living relative to the whale is the hippopotamus, some theorize.

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