Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Awesome Dead Shit: Odobenocetops, the Walrus-Whale

What do you get when you take the droopy-lipped visage of a walrus and say, why the hell not, let's attach it to a whale?
Pure, undiluted genius, that's what you get.

 Yes, this monstrosity that nature shoved together to confuse you was a real animal: the gloriously graceful Odobenocetops, or walrus-whale!


Such beauty and grace should never have gone extinct.
Damn you mother nature, for taking away this marvel of natural selection.


These guys were related to Narwals and had an asymmetrical  Fu Manchu of backwards-facing tusks. Recent research indicates that Narwals use their tusks as sensory organs: scientists (and a dentist, who led the research because who else would be fascinated by teeth) trapped some narwals, dunked their tusks in salt or fresh water, and measured their heartbeat to see if there was a difference. Those dunked in salt had an obvious reaction: hence, the tusk could detect the difference in salinity. Most people's teeth can detect cold and hot and biting into particularly nasty-cold ice cream will definitely cause your heart to skip a beat - adapting such an organ and making it even more sensitive seems a pretty simple evolutionary step. It's possible that Odobenocetops used their tusks similarly.

From canine to enormously oversized head-spike. Gotcha.

But though walrus-whales were related to narwhals (and not Walruses, which are just dirty evolutionary copycats), their tusks were evolved independently. They have two tusks, and sometimes one was bigger than the other. Unlike dolphins, Odobenocetops probably couldn't have echolocated (they didn't have the ears for it), and they had no teeth inside their mouths. Instead they had a thick, bony palate, maybe for crushing crustaceans against. Odobenocetops nose bones have a lot of muscle scarring on them, so they probably also had big fleshy lips like real walruses do. They may have used these for sucking up crustaceans or shells, which their megatusks could have been helpful in finding - sort of like a rototiller but for shellfish.  It's also been suggested that the tusks were like sled-runners for its enormous head, meant basically for stabilizing as the walrus-whale rooted through the mud.

Because who doesn't like the taste of crab with a little extra muck on the side?
That, or the classic reasoning behind any headgear might be to blame: maybe the ladies thought they were sexy! Odobenocenotops were sexually dimorphic, with females having smaller tusks overall than the males did. No notes yet as to whether the asymmetry in the tusks is sort of like fiddler crabs, or just another goofy aspect to an overall goofy-ass dead animal. Science, will your awkward wonders never cease?

RIP the dead double-tusked unicorn of the deep...


REFERENCES

Muizon, Christian de, and P. DARYL. "The anatomy of Odobenocetops (Delphinoidea, Mammalia), the walrus‐like dolphin from the Pliocene of Peru and its palaeobiological implications." Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society134, no. 4 (2002): 423-452.

de Muizon, Christian, Daryl P. Domning, and Mary Parrish. "Dimorphic tusks and adaptive strategies in a new species of walrus-like dolphin (Odobenocetopsidae) from the Pliocene of Peru." Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences-Series IIA-Earth and Planetary Science 329, no. 6 (1999): 449-455.

de Muizon, Christian, Daryl P. Domning, and Darlene R. Ketten. "Odobenocetops peruvianus, the walrus-convergent delphinoid (Mammalia: Cetacea) from the early Pliocene of Peru." Cenozoic mammals of land and sea: tributes to the career of Clayton E. Ray. Volume 93 (2002): 223-261.

Nweeia, Martin T., Frederick C. Eichmiller, Peter V. Hauschka, Ethan Tyler, James G. Mead, Charles W. Potter, David P. Angnatsiak, Pierre R. Richard, Jack R. Orr, and Sandie R. Black. "Vestigial tooth anatomy and tusk nomenclature for Monodon monoceros." The Anatomical Record 295, no. 6 (2012): 1006-1016.