The unknown ancestors of dolphins have been discovered in present-day Switzerland

Two previously unknown species, related to modern sperm whales and oceanic dolphins, have been identified by paleontologists in a Swiss area that was once an ocean.

Described on the basis of ear bones, this species lived about 20 million years ago, when Switzerland at that time was part of an island landscape populated by fish, sharks and dolphins, with mussels and sea urchins on the sea floor.

Paleontologists at the University of Zurich have so far studied about 300 whale and dolphin fossils dating back to this period. The main natural history and paleontological collections of Switzerland mainly contain parts of the teeth, vertebrae, and ear bones found in upper marine molasses, indicating that strong currents carried the animal skeletons across the ocean floor and spread the bones.

For research purposes, the most interesting remains are the bones of the inner ear, as they allow the classification of individual species. The problem is that these types of bones are found less frequently. “However, we were able to identify two previously unknown families of dolphins in Switzerland,” says paleontologist Gabriel Aguirre, summarizing the results of the study published in PeerJ.

Using micro-tomography, the researchers were able to reconstruct the soft organs around the hard bones of the ear to create 3D models of the ears. “It helped us to better analyze the hearing ability of dolphins,” Aguirre explains. According to the data of the study, the extinct animals are associated with sperm whales and oceanic dolphins that live today.

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