The pygmy right whale Caperea marginata: the last of the cetotheres

R. Ewan Fordyce, Felix G. Marx

Abstract

The pygmy right whale, Caperea marginata, is the most enigmatic of the living baleen whales (Mysticeti). Its highly disparate morphology and the virtual absence of a described fossil record have made it extremely difficult to place Caperea into a broader evolutionary context, and molecular and morphological studies have frequently contradicted each other as to the origins and phylogenetic relationships of the species. Our study of a wealth of material from New Zealand collections, representing a wide range of ontogenetic stages, has identified several new features previously unreported in Caperea, which suggest that the pygmy right whale may be the last survivor of the supposedly extinct family Cetotheriidae. This hypothesis is corroborated by both morphology-based and total evidence cladistic analyses, including 166 morphological characters and 23 taxa, representing all the living and extinct families of toothless baleen whales. Our results allow us to formally refer Caperea to Cetotheriidae, thus resurrecting the latter from extinction and helping to clarify the origins of a long-problematic living species.

  • Received November 7, 2012.
  • Accepted November 26, 2012.
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