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A Whale of a Tale?

The Evidence for the Evolution of Whales


Gabriel D. McNett
Department of Biology and Environmental Science
Westminster College


For years whale evolution was characterized by speculation and limited evidence. Evolution critics even focused on whales as a means to criticize evolutionary theory. Now whale evolution represents one of the best examples of "macroevolution." This "clicker case" uses this fascinating story of historical irony as a backdrop to the study of whale evolution. First, students study an array of whale fossils to learn how evolution is properly viewed as a branching, relationship-based process, not a linear, progressive, "chain-of-being." Using this view they learn how scientists seek to reconstruct past relationships and study transitional features, not search for "missing links." Students then learn that evidence for macroevolution relies on several lines of independent evidence from fossils, comparative anatomy, embryology, genetics, and paleoecology. With a focus on macroevolution, this case makes a critical contribution to evolution education. It could work well in a lower level undergraduate biology / evolution / paleontology course (non-majors or majors), or in an upper-level evolution course, perhaps early in the semester as a primer for related topics.

  • Distinguish evolution as a branching, relationship-based process, rather than a linear, progressive process.
  • Interpret the basic structure of an evolutionary (phylogenetic) tree.
  • Discuss various independent lines of evidence that support the evolution of whales from a four-legged, terrestrial vertebrate.
Keywords: Macroevolution; phylogenetics; cetaceans; missing link; fossils; transitional forms; whales; dolphins; Cetaceans; Pakicetus; Ambulocetus
Topical Area: N/A
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Clicker
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Paleontology   Evolutionary Biology  
Date Posted: 12/23/2015
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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