A few weeks ago I took a trip to New York in order to be officially hired as a writer for a website on whale evolution that Jonathan Geisler (New York College of Osteopathic Medicine) is collaborating on with John Gatesy (UC Riverside) for an NSF grant. This trip was convenient because Jonathan and I are collaborating on a couple of research projects together, including the description of a fragmentary pilot-whale like skull from the Purisima Formation, as well as working on a large body of Herpetocetus material from Northern California. Once the website is up, I'll go into quite a bit more detail about it.
In 2008 I presented a talk (my first oral presentation) at SVP on a new skull of Herpetocetus bramblei I had found the previous year. The skull is pretty nice, and has about half the rostrum and a complete braincase, with earbones (tympanic, petrosal, stapes, incus, malleus). Because of its completeness and preservation, it will be a daunting task just to describe it. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon how you look at it!) I have since collected another skull with a complete rostrum, and another (slightly less complete) skull from higher up in the Purisima Formation which may represent a younger species. So, including a fragmentary braincase at UCMP, there are four Herpetocetus crania, about a dozen petrosals, several tympanics, a half dozen dentaries, and some postcrania that we need to describe. Anyway, we didn't really work on this project at all.
One day during the trip we went in to the AMNH to look at some modern odontocete crania for comparison with the fossil pilot whale. A year and a half before, when I presented my poster on it at SVP (the 2009 Bristol meeting), I had identified it as Globicephala sp. at the time; fossil delphinid expert Giovanni Bianucci mentioned to me that he was not quite convinced that it belonged in that taxon. At the time I just identified it as best I could, without really having access to crania of other globicephalines like Pseudorca, Peponocephala, and Feresa. During our AMNH trip, we came to a similar conclusion as Giovanni - it's got too many differences to be in Globicephala, as it shares some other similarities with Pseudorca and Feresa.
Jonathan Geisler puzzles over fossil and modern globicephaline skulls.
However, it still definitely falls within the clade Globicephalinae, and that's what's important any way. I'll go into more detail about the ramifications of this fossil later on once we've at least submitted our paper - hopefully sometime early summer I'll have this one (manuscript #6) off.
Here I am (with appropriate shirt for the visit) with a beluga (Delphinapterus) skull.
Perhaps in a later post I'll post some of the pictures I took on a 15 minute dash through the fourth floor exhibits (which was all the time I had before we wanted to leave).