13 February 2010

Fossil Vertebrate of the Month: Cophocetus

This month's fossil vertebrate - and those for all the months between February and May - is a whale. This cetacean theme is in honor of the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History's current exhibit, Whales of Deep Time. It's the first part of the three-part exhibit Paleolab-Oregon's Past Revealed (tune in this summer to find out about Part 2). This is, to a certain extent, shameless self-promotion, as I played a small part in putting the show together (I wrote some of the labels; drop by to see if you can guess which ones!). It's also the first time in decades that we've been able to put so many of the UO's more spectacular fossils on display, so if you have any interest in Northwest paleontology, it's well worth a visit.
February's whale is Cophocetus oregonensis, a species that, as the name suggests, is unique to the Oregon coast: the type specimen was unearthed near the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse in Newport. Bones that may be attributable to another species of Cophocetus have been uncovered near San Mateo, California. The Newport specimen - currently on display in Paleolab - consists of an incomplete skeleton including a vestigial pelvis, a relic from its distant, land-dwelling ancestors. Cophocetus was a member of the Pelocetidae, an extinct family of whales found worldwide during the Miocene. Pelocetids were early balaenopteroids, making them not-too-distant relatives of modern rorquals, including humpback and blue whales.

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