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Keywords:

  • Aetiocetidae;
  • evolution;
  • fossil Cetacea;
  • Japan;
  • Mexico;
  • North Pacific;
  • Oligocene;
  • Oregon;
  • systematics;
  • Washington

Abstract Fossil whales in the very rare, primitive, extinct cetacean family Aetiocetidae are small, relict, toothed mysticetes that persisted into Late Oligocene time after more highly derived baleen-bearing mysticetes had already evolved. No known aetiocetid could be ancestral to baleen-bearing mysticetes, but aetiocetid morphology is in many ways intermediate between archaeocetes and baleen-bearing mysticetes, demonstrating the probable transitional steps passed through in the evolution of baleen-bearing mysticetes. Their discovery indicates that mysticetes evolved from Archaeocetes, and supports theories of the monophyly of Cetacea. Late Oligocene aetiocetids have been found on both sides of the North Pacific Ocean: on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada; in Oregon and Washington, USA; in Baja California Sur, México; and the islands of Kyushu and Hokkaido, Japan.

The most primitive North American aetiocetid, Chonecetus sookensis Russell, 1968, is from the early Late Oligocene Hesquiat Formation on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. A more derived, Late Oligocene species, Chonecetus goedertorum Barnes and Furusawa, new species, from the Late Oligocene Pysht Formation, Olympic Peninsula, Washington, has the primitive placental mammalian tooth count of 11/11. The type genus of the family, Aetiocetus Emlong, 1966, has as its type species, A. cotylalveus Emlong, 1966, known only from the Late Oligocene Yaquina Formation on the coast of Oregon. It has 11 upper teeth on each side of the rostrum. A more derived species, Aetiocetus weltoni Barnes and Kimura, new species, from a higher stratigraphic level in the Yaquina Formation, has a more posteriorly positioned cranial vertex and a tooth count of 11/12.

We describe four new species of aetiocetids in three genera from the Late Oligocene Morawan Formation near Ashoro, Hokkaido, Japan. The most primitive, Ashorocetus eguchii Barnes and Kimura, new genus and species, has a primitive stage of cranial telescoping, and is closely related to Chonecetus Russell, 1968. Another, Morawanocetus yabukii Kimura and Barnes, new genus and species, in some ways intermediate between Chonecetus and Aetiocetus, has a suite of unique derived characters, including a much foreshortened brain case. The third, Aetiocetus tomitai Kimura and Barnes, new species, is the most primitive species of Aetiocetus yet discovered. The fourth, Aetiocetus polydentatus Sawamura, new species, the most derived species of Aetiocetus known, has a highly telescoped cranium, homodonty, polydonty and a dental count of 13–14/14–15.

The fossil record now indicates considerable diversity in the family, with several different contemporaneous lineages in three new subfamilies: Chonecetinae, Morawanocetinae and Aetiocetinae. Aetiocetids are not known outside the North Pacific. Many Recent mysticetes are essentially cosmopolitan, and aetiocetids might have also been relatively widely dispersed. We suspect that with time their remains will be found around other ocean basins also. If so, then they may be potentially useful in trans-oceanic geological correlations.