Richard Dawkins “The Ancestor’s Tale” audio book traces our ancestry back through the ages, recapping the tales of various animals as they join our “pilgrimage” all the way back to the dawn of evolution.
At one particular rendezvous we meet the Artiodactyls – the even-toed mammals i.e. mammals with hoofs like pigs and hippos. Here Dawkins tells the tale of whales.
What? Whales don’t have hoofs!!! No, but their closest ancestor does. Hippos are in fact closer to whales then they are pigs!
Apparently the hippo and whale had a common ancestor – a semi-aquatic deer-like ungulate – that is a now extinct. This particular ungulate had diverged from their common ancestor with the pig around 60 million years ago.
Around five million years later this creature split into slightly different versions of the same animal – adapting to two different environments.
Four million years after that one of these adaptations entered the water, and in the new zero-gravity world blew up to become the largest animals to inhabit our planet.
The story of the whale is, for me, is one of the most pertinent examples of life’s constant flux and the unexpected beauties and absurdities that can result.
All animals, including us, are in a constant state of evolution. As the environment changes we adapt with it. Those that are most suited to the survive.
What changes will occur in another few million years? Will we be the ancestor to another human-like animal? Giants, midgets or mermaids? Or will the lineage of mammals be extinct thanks to our reckless use of nature’s stones? Will some kind of fish come back out of the ocean after mammals are wiped out? Or might rats take over the world, dig up our artifacts and interpret the stars?
I suppose only time will tell.
Jean-Renaud Boisserie/UC Berkeley
Sources: Reuters, BBC News, University of California, Berkeley