Sunday, May 21, 2023

Fieldwork snapshots: fur seals, belugas, and ash deposits in the Purisima Formation, May 2023

Earlier this week Sarah and I flew home to the SF Bay Area to visit family and find some fossils. We've done several days of chilly fieldwork along the beautiful but cold and foggy California coast and are now enjoying a weekend day indoors with my folks (though we'll be visiting one last locality for an hour or so this afternoon). We're lightly sunburned, sore, and surprisingly bruised after lots of up-and-down hiking over rock exposures and boulder falls. Fortunately, neither of us has come into contact with poison oak, been slammed by a wave, or sustained any moderate injuries (though I was about a second away from losing my big toenail, and Sarah did slip at one point - see below).

I won't reveal the exact location as it is not in Santa Cruz, but it is protected and I have received a permit to collect here, with specimens destined for UCMP collections - and a permit is required. It's admittedly a reasonably remote site, perhaps my favorite locality, and one I've been visiting now for nearly 20 years - and I'm on my third permit for the locality. I had a bit of luck here in December, and I hoped to have similar luck this week.

 Jorge Vazquez explaining their findings and dating of the Putah Tuff-correlative ash bed forming this ledge in the Purisima Formation.

We met USGS/Stanford geologists Jorge Vazquez and Marsha Lidzbarski out along the coast along with our buddy Wayne Thompson (retired teacher and CEO of Pacific Paleontology, LLC) for a long day of fieldwork. Jorge and Marsha have been working on dating ash beds in the Purisima. I was familiar with Andre Sarna-Wojcicki's efforts to chemically fingerprint ash deposits, linking them to the volcanic deposits, lava flows, and tuff beds near the volcanic vent where the rocks were dated better - this is a form of geochemical correlation of ashes without directly dating the ash beds themselves. Only two ash beds out at this section had previously been dated - one correlated with the ~2.5 Ma Ishi Tuff in the southernmost cascades and another correlated with the 3.35 Putah Tuff from the Sonoma Volcanics. Rather than just being chemically fingerprinted, Jorge, Marsha, and others were directly dating the ash layers within the Purisima section.

Incredible high-contrast fossil burrows infilled with volcanic ash from a thick ash bed correlated with the Ishi Tuff.

About two years ago I was invited to review a paper reporting ash dates directly from this section of the Purisima Formation I had labored for years over - these geologists were unaware of the paleontological significance of the section (e.g. documenting the chronology and faunal changes over the past three million years) and I was completely unaware that anyone else cared about this locality! I had a robust list of suggested changes, which ironically led Jorge, Marsha, and others to seek out more and more ash beds to sample. We've been intermittently chatting over the past few months and decided to meet up - go out to the cliffs, and compare notes. I was absolutely floored by how many additional ash beds there were out there, and many of them have since been sampled! I'm not used to geological study on the Pacific coast being so vigorous and rapid... usually west coast geologists seem to work on 'geologic time'. Some of my vertebrate localities now have incredible dates constraining their ages to intervals as brief as 200,000 years!

A small pinniped finger bone, likely a metapodial or phalanx.

We had two main goals: 1) check out as many different vertebrate-bearing horizons as possible and recover whatever we could and 2) walk though as much of the section as possible and exchange notes. Wayne's job as a permit co-signer was to become familiarized with the best localities so that he could sample them intermittently while I'm on the east coast. I expect to extend this permit a year into mid-late 2024, and can only afford to make it out here a couple times per year.

Every time I visit the Balaenoptera bertae type locality I have to stop by and pose with it. It's my first named species! And I found it, excavated, prepared and studied it. It doesn't get much better than that.

We started off in the uppermost part of the section, and showed everyone the type locality of Balaenoptera bertae - owing to extreme winter erosion from January through March, caused by back to back atmospheric river storms, the sand level was quite a bit lower than typical and the hole, once about a meter above the beach when I discovered and collected the skull in August 2005, was now about five meters above the beach! We walked a ways along the beach, hopeful to survey a large section of cliffs that are typically easily accessible at high tide - but got turned back as the waves were crashing down upon the only real 'choke point' here, a spur of rock that stuck out about 200' from the main line of the cliffs into the Pacific. On our side of the spur, I relocated two baleen whale mandibles I hadn't seen in years. The first was a humpback whale sized mandible I first spotted in 2005, which had the mandibular condyle protruding from the cliff. This mandible was sticking straight into the cliff and would have required a hole approximately three meters deep to excavate - far too much effort for a single mandible. Then, when I returned for more fieldwork in 2010 on my second permit, I couldn't relocate the mandible. I spotted it for the first time in 18 years because the cliffs had been cleaned off - the mandible had fractured flush with the cliff face, and the cliffs here are frequently quite covered with dust.


Sarah and the re-discovered baleen whale mandible. There's about three more meters of bone sticking straight into the cliff.

The second was a much smaller mandible which I spotted in December 2016, but as I didn't have a permit, I took some photos and intended to return with a permit sometime and collect it. It was the posterior half of a mandible of a small baleen whale, very likely to be my favorite dwarf baleen whale Herpetocetus. When I tried finding it in December 2022, I couldn't relocate it. I had a strong feeling that I would easily find it on this trip, so I ascended the bluff - and couldn't find it. Weird! Maybe it had eroded away. I walked further, looking for other fossils - and then spotted it, about 10 meters further up the bluff than I had remembered. Quite a bit of the mandible had eroded away, but fortunately the diagnostic posterior end, including the coronoid process, angular process, and mandibular condyle were intact - and their morphology confirmed my identification of the specimen as Herpetocetus. If I hadn't scored the rest of this specimen it would have almost certainly eroded away.

A mandible sketch in the sand I did to explain what we were looking at.

I routinely make sketches from memory in the sand - why not? It's the world's biggest white board! And it usually erases itself at the next high tide.

 Wayne helping Sarah off the beach while I was being super helpful and taking pictures...

We drove down to another spot and took a trail down one of the larger gullies - one other spot afforded a trail down nearly a mile closer to the best fossil-bearing spot, but unfortunately this more conveniently located trail is typically overgrown with poison oak. We chatted about the Putah tuff-correlative ash exposed in this gully, here nearly a meter thick - Jorge explained that while the Ishi tuff-correlative ash further up-section within the Purisima Formation is several meters thick, the actual ash layer near the volcanic vent itself is only around 10-15 cm thick. This means that the ash layer has been dramatically exaggerated through sedimentation - this ash was likely deposited inland and redeposited as a thick layer on the continental shelf by a river mouth on the periphery of the Purisima depositional basin, perhaps the ancient opening of the San Joaquin embayment (the extinct "Priest Valley Strait", which used to connect the marine San Joaquin embayment to the formerly marine Salinas River Valley) to the southeast. 


A great exposure of the ash bed correlative with the 3.35 Ma Putah Tuff - white ash-filled burrows extend downwards into the brownish gray Purisima sandstone, and brownish-gray sediment infills burrows extending into the top of the ash. The ash bed iself is about 1-1.5 meters thick and cross-bedded - hummocky cross-beds, I believe - indicating rapid sedimentation, too rapid for the sediment to be bioturbated by burrowers.

 An impression of a large scallop, likely
Patinopecten healyi - a Pliocene index fossil in California.

 A fractured boulder with a bed of slipper snails (
Crepidula princeps) - these gastropods lived in large clusters and are hermaphroditic, often forming small patch reefs. Shell beds like this can be a few meters across. In this case, the shell has been dissolved away - common in this section. However, these shells are also frequently bored into owing to their non-burrowing ecology - the little rice grain sized blobs are the infill of boring sponges (Clionidae), the trace fossil Entobia.

On our way to the best collecting area we encountered our first rockfall - a brand new one that must have occurred in the past five months since I had not seen it on my December visit. Some of the boulders exposed shell bed layers that had in the past (like, in 2006) produced some rare teeth (e.g. a sawshark rostral tooth) and a tympanic bulla of a true porpoise (Phocoenidae). I saw some interesting crustacean parts and then immediately found two different tympanic bullae - one appeared to be from a phocoenid or perhaps a delphinid (oceanic dolphin), and the other one was very clearly from Parapontoporia, the "river dolphin" from the Purisima Formation that is most closely related to the recently extinct Chinese river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer). I was quite pleased - in just a few minutes, I raised the number of dolphin bullae from three to five, nearly doubling it! These were somewhat more common than the more taxonomically informative periotic bones - only two of which had ever been found: one I found in 2010 or 2011, and another that Chris Pirrone had found with me. 

Walking down along the cliffs to the best collecting area.

 Formidable cliffs.

We visited the two most promising localities, and unfortunately neither produced much: I was hoping for a couple of shark teeth or marine mammal teeth, maybe a periotic bone. Nada; just a few bone fragments. The cliffs here didn't look too different than in December, and even more erosion would likely be needed. I had hoped that by bringing Sarah along she'd find some teeny tiny little skate or stingray teeth from one micro-tooth bearing shell bed, but she had been quite cold and tired and wasn't in her prime. I managed to do somewhat better than past visits and found three or four 1-2mm wide skate (Raja) and/or stingray (Dasyatis) teeth - so that was nice.

 Sarah smiling despite being quite chilly on the walk down.

Yours truly with a tiny little fur seal mandible! I'll post more photos once it's prepared. Easily the find of the day.

Luck finally changed when we made it down to the last stop, which was a sea cave that has grown considerably since I first found bones in it in 2005. In December I had collected an unusual looking bone and upon pulling it out, realized it was the rostrum of a dolphin, probably Parapontoporia - I did not have the time or equipment to collect the rest of the skull, so I hoped it would survive the winter storms that were brewing on the horizon. As I entered the cave and saw how low the sand was and how high the ceiling was, my heart sank a bit. No trace of the dolphin could be located after about 20 minutes of desperate searching. Few newly exposed bits of bone looked enticing. I finally spotted a tiny bone about 8 feet above the sand that looked intriguing. After a few failed attempts of scaling the wall of the cave I almost gave up, but on the last try I used some footholds I had carved in years ago and scaled the wall and traversed over to it - I stuck my chisel in and gave it a couple of taps and saw that it was coming loose. I put my hammer back on my belt, and while precariously balanced, I used one hand to cradle the specimen and the other hand to delicately push and leverage the chisel into the rock and the little bone tilted over gently into my hand. I briefly caught glinting of enamel; before I thought I might lose my balance, I pocketed my chisel and looked more closely - I saw two teeth. "Holy shit I found something great" I exclaimed as I hopped down to the sand. I held it up and realized I was staring at a tiny little fragment of mandible with two teeth in place - teeth clearly identifiable as pinniped - and probably a fur seal. My luck had finally turned around! "I could leave right now and be happy with today!" Sarah, who was happy for me but quite chilled, snidely remarked "let's leave now then." I showed the find to the rest of the group and explained how rare pinniped fossils are, and that I had been desperately looking for such a fossil from this site for nearly 20 years. This specimen now marks the fourth pinniped mandible from the Purisima I've collected in the past 16 months! We walked a bit further to take a look at some ash beds, and then headed back up towards the trail.


When we got back to the gully we were going to walk back up, we saw a sea lion on the beach - I thought at first that it was a very fresh carcass. Then, I saw it breathe and its nostrils flared. It seemed to be a 2-3 year old male, and not aware of us - assuming it was a carcass, we got within 15 feet - until we realized it was unconscious. It was not starving (no ribs/scapulae/knees protruding) and had no obvious lesions or bite marks on it - I assumed that it was sick. Wayne Thompson observed that it was shallowly breathing - indeed, breathing quite slowly, and called the Marine Mammal Center. Normally, when you approach a sea lion, they open their eyes and will shift their weight while they're judging whether or not you're a threat - and even if they're not aware of you, they often snort and scratch themselves while asleep. 

The tympanic bulla of a monodontid as first located after Sarah slipped.

The periotic of the monodontid, found about a meter away. The white weathered bit - the posterior process - was all that was exposed.

A bit of chiseling...

 ...and voila! Happy whaleontologist with a new record for the locality.

We started heading back up the gully, and I tried to help Sarah up a small ledge out of some rancid water (water backed up behind a sandbar in the gully that was filled with decomposing Velella velella, by-the-wind-sailors). While I was pulling her up, one of her feet slipped and she banged up her knee pretty good - she cussed for a couple minutes but was otherwise OK. While she was rubbing her knee and resting for a moment, I noticed what I first thought was the mold of a mollusk shell - and then realized it was actually a pretty chunky tympanic bulla from an odontocete! My third one for the day. As I chiseled it out I noted that it's a bit larger than the most common tympanic bullae from the Purisima, meaning that it's not Parapontoporia or from a phocoenid porpoise - or a small delphinid. I thought at first it might be from a globicephaline, like a pilot whale, which I already documented from this locality a decade ago. While I was chatting with the others and wrapped the specimen up, I saw a little 1 cm wide bit of bone sticking out - it had some distinctive little spurs and longitudinal grooves that I immediately recognized as part of the posterior process of another earbone, about a meter away. At first I thought this was likely the other tympanic bulla. As I looked closer, I remarked "No %%%-ing way" and began to carefully chisel: it was a periotic! The periotic is the more informative of the two earbones. After a minute I confirmed that this was a large odontocete, possibly a pilot whale or maybe from a beluga (Monodontidae). As the periotic popped out without fracturing, I saw the dorsal side - confirming it to be from a monodontid! With this associated pair of earbones, I had doubled the sample of odontocete bullae, and increased the sample of odontocete periotics from this locality from two to three. Further, this is the first confirmed monodontid from this locality in the Purisima Formation. Needless to say, I was elated! So, I thanked my dear wife for falling and getting a bruised up knee for a couple days: I think I'll have to list her as a co-finder for her role in the find.

 As everywhere else along the Pacific coast, there was no shortage of by-the-wind-sailors (Velella velella) washing up along the beach here.

A minute later, Wayne indicated that he had found some fish bones - he brought over a chunk of rock he had chiseled out with a couple of vertebrae. "And there's more in the rock!", he said. I came over there, and sure enough, there were a few additional bones including something that looked symmetrical - perhaps a braincase. The vertebrae were about 2 cm long or so. Wayne and I collected the last few bits and bagged them up. At this point, Sarah noticed that the sea lion had woken up and was standing up at attention, looking at us with mild concern. It was getting a bit late in the afternoon and Wayne parted ways - the rest of us headed a bit further north to get to the localities we had wanted to check earlier in the morning, but were barred by waves. Sarah was a bit cold and tired (she informed us we had hit five miles of walking a bit earlier) and opted to stay in the car while Jorge, Marsha, and I walked south. Jorge and Marsha pointed out different ash beds they had sampled, and I checked the last few localities.

 The Herpetocetus skull, still in its faithful concretion, waiting patiently for us to excavate it on a followup visit later in the summer.

 A partial palatoquadrate cartilage of a skate,
Raja binoculata. This is the lower jaw, and is composed of calcified cartilage - often fibrous but with a layer of prismatic (tesselated) cartilage.

A partial rostrum of a medium-sized cetacean - most likely a small mysticete, but something about it looks odd to me.

I confirmed that the Herpetocetus skull I found last year survived all of the winter erosion, which was a relief! And further yet, not covered in sand. A few feet away I found a nice palatoquadrate cartilage of a skate (Raja). A few minutes later I found an unusual bone that had not been exposed in December, which came out in a few pieces. A bit further on down the beach I pointed out a minke whale-sized mandible which I had wanted to excavate, but half of it was removed by a fossil poacher. I then located what appeared to be a relatively flat looking rostrum from a cetacean - which is either from a dwarf whale like Herpetocetus or perhaps from a monodontid. A follow up visit is necessary to excavate this.

A greenish chunk of metaconglomerate, likely from the Franciscan complex - the rocks that make up the hills in San Francisco, much of the east bay, Angel Island, Alcatraz, and the Marin Headlands.

 A cluster of sand dollars, probably Merriamaster.

 A much younger ecentric sand dollar (
Dendraster excentricus) with a huge red striped acorn barnacle (Paraconcavus pacificus) stuck to it, with several additional barnacles. A common occurrence along this section of the coast!

A closeup of some slipper snail colonies (Crepidula princeps), along with a large scallop.

The entire shell bed - a concretion about 1.5x2 meters in size, 99% of the fossils belonging to a single species. This would be a 'community bed' according to Richard Norris' (1986) research on the taphonomy of the Purisima Formation.

Monday, May 1, 2023

New Fossils of Coronodon 3: Implications for the early evolution and phylogeny of baleen whales

Welcome to part 3 of my blog post series on the toothed mysticete Coronodon - in part 1, I gave a bit of background on the history of research on Coronodon and other toothed mysticetes, as well as some of the new fossils of Coronodon havensteini. In part 2, I summarized the two new species, Coronodon planifrons and Coronodon newtonorum. In part 3, I dive into the broader evolutionary significance of Coronodon, whether or not it had baleen, its phylogenetic relationships, possible other relatives or members of the clade Coronodonidae from other ocean basins, and the early evolution of Neoceti. There's going to be a lot of different clade names in this - the most important one being Neoceti, which is the clade formed by baleen whales (Mysticeti) and toothed/echolocating whales (Odontoceti).

See Coronodon Part 1 here.

See Coronodon Part 2 here. 

And again, the paper can be viewed here.

Brief glossary:

Clade: a biologically 'real' group of organisms including a common ancestor and all of its descendants (monophyly means that a group of organisms is a clade, with one common ancestor)

Grade: a group of organisms excluding some ancestors or descendants; paraphyly means some members of a clade are excluded, polyphyly means that members of the group are distributed within several different clades and are unrelated (e.g. numerous ancestors are excluded)

Synapomorphy: some feature, typically an anatomical feature, that defines a particular clade

Sister taxon: a lineage that is the closest relative or branch to another

Character: some feature, usually an anatomical one, with various conditions that can be coded for in a cladistic analysis - some characters may end up being identified as synapomorphies

Operational Taxonomic Unit (OTU): The individual entry for a specimen or species (or occasionally group of species) in a cladistic data matrix

Matrix: All of the codings in a big spreadsheet, for all the characters and OTUs in a particular data set; the matrix is the data that is used to sort and identify the shortest, most parsimonious trees

Homoplasy: a character that evolves in parallel several times and may not be as informative as a derived character state that evolves once

Derived: a politically correct way of saying an 'advanced' character.

Plesiomorphic: the opposite of derived or synapomorphic - the 'primitive' character state

Odontoceti: 'toothed whales' or 'echolocating whales' - dolphins, sperm whales, beaked whales, and stem odontocetes like xenorophids, waipatiids, squalodontids, etc.

Mysticeti: all toothed and toothless 'baleen whales', regardless of possessing baleen.

Neoceti: the clade formed by the Odontoceti + Mysticeti. You can't be a neocete unless you're also either an odontocete or mysticete. 

Archaeocetes: all cetaceans outside of Neoceti, including pakicetids, ambulocetids, remingtonocetids, protocetids, basilosaurids, and probably Kekenodon.


Did Coronodon Possess Baleen?

In the original 2017 paper we mentioned a couple of palatal foramina in the supplementary description. If you recall from the first blog post I wrote on Coronodon, interpreting palatal foramina in baleen whale fossils used to mean that a mysticete likely had baleen: these are the nutrient foramina that supply blood vessels and nerves to the bed of epithelial tissue that the baleen grows from. All extant baleen whales have these foramina in the palate, along with long sulci (grooves). Some odontocetes have some tiny foramina, and a couple of archaeocetes have them on the premaxilla, but that's not exactly relevant since these structures in modern mysticetes are always on the maxilla - the primary bone of the rostrum.

Palatal foramina in the holotype specimen of Coronodon havensteini.

Upon closer examination, I noticed some additional foramina on the palate of Coronodon. I've only seen these in the Coronodon havensteini holotype, and they are curiously absent in the palates of juvenile specimens ChM PV 4745 and CCNHM 8722 - the latter of which is quite fractured, but actually has decent surficial preservation. Anyway, in the holotype, there are about nine foramina, six on the right and three on the left. All of these are greater than 1 millimeter in diameter; some are vertical, and none seem to be associated with the spongy bone frequently seen around the roots of modern odontocete and pinniped teeth probably driven by periodontal disease. Some of these, like foramina 1, 2, 6, and 9, all have sulci emanating from them. Others, like 3, 4, and 7, are vertical or nearly so.

In CT imaging, most of these foramina trend dorsally towards the tooth roots where the superior alveolar canal likely was - instead of the greater palatine canal. However, the scan is from a medical scanner so resolution is not fantastic, and the superior alveolar canal is damaged. Yet, we're more confident of a superior alveolar canal connection than the greater palatine canal. Why is this important? The superior alveolar canal is the canal in the maxilla that transmits all of the lateral palatal foramina and the blood vessels and nerves in extant mysticetes. This indicates that these structures are in fact homologous with extant baleen whales. 

The extensive, possibly rather disgusting gingiva of Coronodon. Is this the tissue that the foramina innervated? Illustration by yours truly.

So, does this mean Coronodon had baleen in addition to its teeth? Maybe, but we suspect not: these are quite tiny compared to skull size, being around the same absolute size as in the controversial Aetiocetus weltoni but in a skull twice as large - so proportionally, perhaps half the size - and there are fewer than in the toothed mysticete Aetiocetus weltoni. They are certainly much smaller (proportionally, and absolutely) and much fewer than in modern baleen whales. Could these instead feed thickened gingival tissue? We did suggest thickened gingiva may have been present in our 2017 paper. Marx et al. (2016) and Fordyce and Marx (2018) proposed thickened gingiva as an alternative to baleen - however, we note that it may not *actually be possible* to distinguish between the two hypotheses.

The Phylogenetic Position of Coronodon

Prior to our study, Coronodon had been included in a number of phylogenetic analyses as unpublished OTUs (operational taxonomic units: the individual branch coded as a discrete entity in a cladistic analysis). The first was Geisler and Sanders (2003), who coded a number of unnamed but phylogenetically informative Oligocene cetaceans into a relatively broad cladistic analysis aimed at Neoceti. This study coded both "Hoss", ChM PV 5720, and juvenile Coronodon havensteini specimen ChM PV 4745, into the matrix and recovered them as sister taxa and placed as the basal-most lineage within Mysticeti. Subsequent analysis using a similarly constructed matrix by Fitzgerald (2006) and (2010) for his studies of Australian mammalodontids Janjucetus and Mammalodon resulted in similar placement at the base of Neoceti. I produced a similar result in my analyses of mysticete relationships in my Ph.D. research on Eomysticetidae, with this "Charleston toothed mysticete clade" positioned at the base of Mysticeti (Boessenecker and Fordyce, 2015A, 2015B). 

 The phylogenetic analysis of mysticetes from Marx and Fordyce (2015).

A slightly different result was recovered in the analysis by Marx and Fordyce (2015), who found the North Pacific toothed mysticetes Aetiocetidae, and the Australian toothed mysticetes, Mammalodontidae, to form a sister taxon relationship and this Aetiocetidae + Mammalodontidae clade was positioned as the earliest branch within Mysticeti - followed by the Charleston toothed mysticete clade, Llanocetus, and then Eomysticetidae. Using the same matrix, Coronodon havensteini - recently named at this point - ended up in the basal-most lineage again in the phylogenetic analysis in the paper on Llanocetus by Fordyce and Marx (2018; note that the unpublished ChM PV 4745 and PV 5720 specimens were not included, there's a whole story there). In our 2017 paper reporting Coronodon, we achieved a similar result: Coronodon havensteini as the most basal lineage of mysticetes, but with Llanocetus as the last diverging toothed mysticete.

A more unusual solution was found by Lambert et al. (2017), who placed the newly named basilosaurid-like whale Mystacodon selenensis as the earliest diverging mysticete, followed by the Aetiocetidae + Mammalodontidae clade, then ChM PV 4745, then Eomysticetidae, and then ChM PV 5720 between Eomysticetidae and crown Mysticeti. In their 2019 followup monograph on Mystacodon, Muizon et al. (2019) found a far more typical result congruent with, for example, my Ph.D. matrix results: a basal Mammalodontidae, followed by the Charleston toothed mysticetes, then Llanocetus, Aetiocetidae, and Eomysticetidae.

 Phylogeny of toothed mysticetes and early Neoceti from the paper on Kekenodon onamata by Corrie and Fordyce (2022).

Much more recently, my Otago labmate Josh Corrie has published his redescription of the problematic archaeocete-like cetacean Kekenodon onamata last year - and quite frankly, I ought to write an entire blog post about that weird beast. Kekenodon has basilosaurid-like teeth along with a Neocete-like periotic that really resembles Coronodon of all things; the holotype specimen was collected from rocks correlative with the Kokoamu Greensand along the Waitaki River upstream from Kurow along the north Otago/south Canterbury border in NZ (Kurow was Fordyce's favorite ice cream pit stop after fieldwork, though depending upon the time, it also frequently turned into a fish 'n chips stop if it was a late field day). The holotype consists of a series of isolated teeth, partial periotic, bulla, frontal, and an atlas vertebra. Fordyce always considered Kekenodon, and more completely preserved specimen OU 22294 - to be transitional between archaeocetes and Neoceti, being somewhat more derived than Basilosauridae in many respects but basal to the odontocete-mysticete split. In the phylogenetic analysis published by Corrie and Fordyce (2022), there is a fairly shocking new result: Kekenodon falls outside Neoceti as predicted by RE Fordyce, but Coronodon, Mammalodontidae, Llanocetus, and Mystacodon ALL fall outside Neoceti as well - suggesting they're all archaeocetes! Only the Aetiocetidae plot out as toothed mysticetes. This result is quite provocative and suggests that there's quite a lot we may not yet understand - and historically have taken for granted - about the basal split between the odontocetes and mysticetes.

In order to approach the question of Coronodon's relationships, we greatly expanded my phylogenetic analysis from my Ph.D. research. I last published a version of this in Boessenecker and Fordyce (2017), my paper on Matapanui waihao, which was quickly adopted and added to by other authors (e.g. Peredo and Uhen, 2016; Peredo et al., 2018). I never stopped tinkering with the matrix - I added a bunch of new taxa into it and every summer would spend a week or so adding in newly named mysticetes, both stem, and crown. I also added more archaic odontocetes including Olympicetus, Ashleycetus, Agorophius, Ankylorhiza, Echovenator, and Xenorophus - odontocetes I am much more familiar with nowadays than during my Ph.D. We also added about 30 new characters, and with the addition of these odontocetes, Kekenodon, and newly described/studied mysticetes, we had an additional ~40 taxa in the analysis - for a total of 130 taxa coded for 392 characters. [I am tired y'all]. This is, to my knowledge, once again the largest analysis of mysticete relationships (both in terms of the number of taxa and number of morphological characters), just like my initial eomysticetid analysis a few years ago was, prior to other taxa being added to it.

Now, a few words for the uninitiated about cladistic analysis: this is the primary way in which we reconstruct evolutionary trees. For modern species this is done with DNA: each spot on the molecule has one of the four nucleotides (cytosine, guanine, adenine, thymine). The more positions sharing identical nucleotides in two different samples indicates they're more closely related. This usually results in many tens of thousands of 'characters' as we call them in morphological analyses. In morphological analyses, we use morphological (or anatomical) features, called characters - state 0 might be the primitive state, state 1 might be a derived state; multistate characters are also useful, with state 2, 3, and so on. An example might be "tooth count" and each state would be a range of tooth count numbers. Each time you go from one character state to another, that's called a 'step'. The computer program generates a large number of different tree shapes, and then sorts the trees based upon the number of steps - under the assumption that the fewest number of steps (character state changes) is most likely the one closest to the truth. I've just described the idea of parsimony. There are more complicated Bayesian analyses which are beyond my abilities to explain or execute, but this is fine for now. Essentially, we used nearly 400 different characters - some with two states, others multistate - to reconstruct evolutionary trees for about 130 different taxa. Lastly, there are at least two different cladistic camps in paleocetology. The first camp considers that only some characters are informative and that uninformative character data - whether they just show a bit of noise or fuzziness, or have some ecological signal that might override phylogenetic signal - should be excluded. The second camp believes that all cladistic analyses will be biased to a degree, and therefore we should attempt to minimize bias by including as many characters and taxa as possible. This is because if you are careful about what characters you pick and choose and which ones you exclude, you can steer the dataset towards delivering a preferred phylogenetic hypothesis, which is not great. "Cooking the books" has also absolutely happened in marine mammal paleontology, and I've witnessed it up close, so to speak. It's one reason why my Ph.D. matrix got so damned big in the first place: I wanted as objective a result as I could manage, and I included every known morphological character that had ever been used in the literature prior to my Ph.D. research. I've done a faithful job expanding the matrix, and the next task will be adding a host of new characters from Felix Marx's 2015 phylogeny, which we just didn't have time for with this study.

 Our enormous tree under equal weighting.

We ran our analysis in the program TNT, under equal weighting (every character is equal) and implied weighting (characters that are 'homoplastic' - evolving many times in parallel - are automatically downweighted by the computer). Each analysis gave us drastically different results. Under equal weighting (frequently the preferred method by many paleontologists, owing to guarded mistrust of the computer's ability to downweight characters and the 'black box' approach to it), the Llanocetidae (consisting of Llanocetus, Mystacodon, and a mandible from the Oligocene of NZ, ZMT 62) plot out at the base of Mysticeti; the Coronodonidae plots out as the next clade within Mysticeti, but in an unresolved position with Mammalodontidae. Various aetiocetids form the base of the next clade, though Aetiocetidae is rifted apart into a bunch of unresolved lineages. Aetiocetidae is a difficult family to code since few specimens have a rostrum, vertex, teeth, and earbones - most fossils have 2/4 preserved, so they tend not to stick together in analyses. The next clade are the Eomysticetidae and the rest of the toothless mysticetes. This tree is not terribly different from my Ph.D. results, the primary differences being the unresolved position of Coronodonidae and Mammalodontidae, addition of llanocetids, and the collapse of Aetiocetidae.

 Our enormous tree under implied weighting.

Under implied weighting, I'd normally hope for a bit more resolution on a relatively similar looking tree: maybe fixing the problems above. However, something very different happens under implied weighting (remember, this is the type of analysis that downweights characters that have evolved in parallel multiple times). Mystacodon and Coronodonidae are pulled outside Neoceti, with Coronodonidae being the sister taxon to the Odontoceti + Mysticeti clade (e.g. Neoceti) and Mystacodon and Kekenodon being successive sister 'stem' lineages to the Coronodonidae + Neoceti clade. Llanocetus forms a southern toothed mysticete clade with the Mammalodontidae, as the earliest diverging mysticete lineage, followed by the nearly monophyletic Aetiocetidae, and then the eomysticetids and rest of the true toothless mysticetes.

 Coronodon is much more similar to basilosaurid ancestors than the earliest diverging odontocetes, the Xenorophidae - which already have most of the hallmark features of Odontoceti.

Is Coronodon a Mysticete, or an Archaeocete?

One of the most serious problems affecting the early fossil record of Neoceti is that the earliest known fossil odontocetes have virtually all of the hallmark features of odontocetes: a large ascending process of the maxilla that overlies the frontal; premaxillary sac fossae; premaxillary foramina; deep antorbital notches, and a few others. This is certainly convenient for identifying fossil odontocetes, but it poses a larger headache: why are all of our early Oligocene odontocetes so derived? We don't really have that situation amongst mysticetes: we have, if anything, an embarassing number of transitional forms that are very, very archaeocete like (such as Coronodon and Mystacodon), some unusual forms that are slightly more derived (Llanocetus, Janjucetus, Mammalodon), and some flat-snouted taxa trending towards looking like a modern mysticete with teeth (Aetiocetidae). Why did mysticetes evolve so much more slowly? That is, after all, what is implied by these fossils: odontocetes evolved rapidly, achieved many of the key craniofacial adaptations for echolocation during a time we do not have fossils for (presumably in the late Eocene), and then radiated after.

Owing to this issue, Jonathan Geisler told me that every now and then, when he would run his matrix, the Charleston toothed mysticetes would pop out of Neoceti as a bit of a fluke - and he wondered if enough character data was amassed, and new specimens coded in - both of Coronodon and other toothed mysticetes - if the same issue might reoccur. Eventually it did, under implied weighting, anyway. So, what does this mean? Nothing, if you're in the camp that doesn't believe in implied weighting, or rather believes more strongly in results recovered under equal weights (for the record, I'm not in either camp).

Optimization of major characters that change at or near the base of Neoceti in our two analyses under equal weights (top cladogram) and implied weights (bottom cladogram). Black boxes show characters and states that support a particular clade under equal weighting, white boxes for implied weighting, and gray boxes for characters that support clades in both analyses. Many traditional characters supporting the monophyly of Neoceti may support a more inclusive clade if Coronodon happens to actually be an archaeocete!

Before we continue, let's review the synapomorphies of both Neoceti and Mysticeti. Some of the key features shared by virtually all Neoceti (with a couple exceptions) include 1) premaxilla contacts the frontal (in archaeocetes, the nasal and maxilla contact posteriorly, and the premaxilla terminates anterior to the frontal); 2) immobile or 'fixed' elbow joint, with flat facts on the distal humerus (all archaeocetes have a movable elbow joint); 3) nearly completely open and continuous mesorostral groove on the rostrum anterior to the bony nares (all archaeocetes have a firm medial suture between the premaxillae); 4) presence of an antorbital notch (no notch in archaeocetes); 5) a posterodorsally facing occipital shield with an apex (vertex) that is thrusted anteriorly to the level of the temporal fossa (in archaeocetes, the shield is vertical and posteriorly positioned); 6) three or more dorsal infraorbital foramina (basilosaurids typically have up to two foramina); 7) posterior process of periotic not exposed on lateral wall of skull - the 'amastoid' condition (basilosaurids have a long posterior process that is slightly exposed laterally); 8) monophyodont dentition (one set of teeth only; some basilosaurids replaced their teeth and were still diphyodont); 9) a ventral keel on the lumbar vertebrae, proposed recently by Davydenko et al. (2021; Basilosauridae have a rounded or flat ventral margin). There are other more poorly formulated synapomorphies that are not considered here because they either ignored many known odontocetes or mysticetes that lacked the feature (in other words, the proposed synapomorphies were present in only a subset of Neoceti).

We evaluated all of these, and a couple others, and found that owing to the placement of Coronodon outside of Neoceti in our implied weighting analysis, that many of these might actually define a group broader than Neoceti - which is a problem. Coronodon has all of these with the exception of two: 2), immobile elbow joint, is unknown in Coronodon, and 8) monophyodont dentition - we might need younger individuals to really tell. So, it's not because Coronodon LACKS these features - it's unknown, and we coded it as a '?' in our matrix. And honestly, that's not unusual: very, very few Oligocene cetaceans are coded for either character.

What about synapomorphies of Mysticeti (baleen whales)? Many proposed synapomorphies in older articles ignore already-established toothed mysticetes (e.g. Aetiocetidae) or have had to be chucked out thanks to the discovery of other toothed mysticetes more recently. Some of the solid synapomorphies proposed for Mysticeti include 1) antorbital process of the maxilla (a small ridge or flange of bone opposite the antorbital notch); 2) flattened rostrum that is <45 degree angle in cross section along at least 3/4 of the length of the maxilla; 3) wide basioccipital crests; 4) deep groove along premaxilla-maxilla suture; 5) triangular supraoccipital; 6) orbitotemporal crest extends anteriorly from parietals onto frontals; 7) swollen paroccipital process with a deep pit for the stylohyoid; 8) and an average of about 4.5-5 mesial cusps on the premolars. All of these features are present in Coronodon. As it happens, most of these synapomorphies have a shorter step length on the equal weighting tree with traditional relationships than on the unusual implied weighting tree. 

Owing to the more straightforward changes in these characters in the traditional tree, we cautiously suggested that Coronodon is probably within Mysticeti and Neoceti. We noted that 1) owing to low bootstrap support at the base of Neoceti and 2) owing to missing data in many early cetaceans at the archaeocete-neocete transition, the addition of just a couple of new fossils or specimens of existing taxa with additional character states might tip the balance one way or the other. To wrap this up - previous studies, including those published by me, have 1) either glossed over important details that are the exception to the rule and 2) certainly taken for granted whether or not some features are really synapomorphies of Mysticeti or not. We hope that these unusual results - like those by Corrie and Fordyce (2022) - result in more careful description of fossils and more careful character coding in future analyses. Our trees may look messier, but only because the truth is likely messier and more complicated than we've previously been able to appreciate.

Speciation and Recognition of Ancestry in Coronodon?

There are two fundamental 'styles' of evolutionary change at the most basic level: anagenesis and cladogenesis. Cladogenesis is the splitting of lineages - one species evolving into two; this is also called speciation. Anagenesis on the other hand is evolutionary change without speciation or the splitting of a lineage. Anagenetic evolution happens all the time, and should probably be viewed as the default mode of evolution outside of branching events. This is a bit different than gradualism v. punctuated equilibrium, which have to do more with how variable evolutionary rate is. Anagenesis remains a bit controversial, because many paleontologists do not 'believe' that ancestor-descendant relations can be identified in the fossil record. This attitude, in my opinion, is informed more by dogma than data. I won't bother going into the specifics, but the gist of it is that cladograms can only show relatedness - and not ancestor-descendant relationships.

Phylogeny of the Coronodonidae, under equal weighting (top) and implied weighting (bottom).

However, some cladograms actually *can* show ancestor-descendant relationships: the missing component is time, and there are certain cladistic tree shapes (topologies) that, if the individual lineages on the cladogram fit in the right time and place, could support ancestor-descendant relationships. In our new paper, we coded each specimen of Coronodon as a different OTU, for a total of six (four specimens of Coronodon havensteini and the Coronodon planifrons and Coronodon newtonorum type specimens) along with "Hoss", the unnamed coronodonid genus represented by ChM PV 5720. In both of our analyses, the two geochronologically younger species from the Chandler Bridge Formation - Coronodon planifrons and Coronodon newtonorum - were recovered as sister taxa. If the specimens looked identical, a sister taxon relationship might indicate (in the absence of other information) that they represented the same species. We know however that there are a number of features that distinguish these two species. The clade formed by these two species is not sister to the sample of Coronodon havensteini specimens, but is instead nested within it! In other words, some specimens of Coronodon havensteini are more similar to the younger species than to other specimens of Coronodon havensteini. Are these specimens not actually Coronodon havensteini? We're really talking about ChM PV 8722 - this specimen does not have any of the distinctive features of Coronodon planifrons or Coronodon newtonorum, and the frontals of this specimen most closely resemble the Coronodon havensteini holotype. Further, all four specimens are quite a bit older, and from the Ashley Formation, dating to 28-30 Ma, as opposed to the 23-24 Ma species from the Chandler Bridge Formation.  The evidence is a bit tenuous, but since we recovered this result under both methods, and the specimen ages line up, we interpreted this as evidence that the two late Oligocene species BOTH evolved from the single early Oligocene species Coronodon havensteini - so we seem to have evidence of ancestry, and a speciation event during the Oligocene. 

One of the isolated teeth of "Squalodon" gambierensis - admittedly a mystery. It doesn't have the same number of cusps, the root isthmus is shorter, and it is much smaller - but the enamel is similarly smooth and the remaining similarities are undeniable. What does the rest of this cetacean look like? Image from Pledge and Rothausen (1977).

On another level, it's interesting that we see a bit of diversity within the group locally - because we have ZERO evidence of Coronodon existing anywhere outside the Charleston Embayment. There are no teeth anywhere else on earth that are a good match. There are a few that somewhat resemble Coronodon but are much smaller - for example, "Squalodon" gambierensis from Australia and New Zealand. But these teeth are much smaller. Where might I predict actual teeth of Coronodon to show up for the first time outside Charleston? Two places: perhaps Onslow Beach in North Carolina, which has produced a number of xenorophids including the Albertocetus meffordorum holotype. Also a long shot, but perhaps Rupelian strata of Belgium - but very few cetacean specimens in general are known from these rocks, and if there's anything we know about Coronodon, is that it's quite rare here in Charleston.

Who else might belong to Coronodonidae?

Aside from aforementioned isolated teeth that resemble Coronodon but with unknown skull morphology, a couple of problematic Oligocene cetacean specimens are out there that have actually formed a clade with Coronodonidae - and *may* belong to the group, but we conservatively restricted the family to only include Coronodon spp. and its larger cousin "Hoss", known so far by ChM PV 5720. These two cetaceans are the recently named Borealodon osedax from the Pysht Formation of Washington, and Metasqualodon symmetricus, named in 1982 by Okazaki from the same locality as Yamatocetus.

 The holotype rostral fragment of Metasqualodon symmetricus, from Okazaki (1982). Top: ventral; middle: dorsal; bottom: lateral.

The utterly gorgeous teeth of the otherwise frustrating Metasqualodon symmetricus, from Okazaki (1982). Top: lingual. Bottom: labial.

Metasqualodon symmetricus is known from the right half of a rostrum from the Oligocene Ashiya Group of Japan. It has teeth that do not overlap like Coronodon, but have a similar number of cusps - and are remarkably symmetrical from the anterior (mesial) to posterior (distal) edges. The teeth are also similarly emergent from the jaw, and have a long isthmus but were probably double rooted given the sulcus in medial/lingual view. The rostrum looks similar  as well - likely triangular, with a deep groove between the premaxilla and maxilla; the maxilla is not flattened, but it is getting there - and the maxilla looks nearly identical to Coronodon in lateral view! In our analyses, Metasqualodon was one of the sister taxa to Coronodonidae, linked by two synapomorphies: having a thick edge of the maxilla and basal acessory cusps on the mesial side of the tooth that point mesially rather than apically. We will need better fossils of this poorly known species to evaluate whether or not it's a coronodonid or something else. Stay tuned =)

 A photo I took of the
Borealodon osedax holotype in January 2016, a few years before it was published. Specimen collected, acid prepared, and generously donated to the Smithsonian by our friend and colleague Jim Goedert.

Another taxon that is problematic, not because of its preservation but because of its penchant for phylogenetic 'flippancy' - it bounced around quite a bit during construction of this matrix. It is missing a lot of data, but has quite a few dorsal braincase features that can be coded, along with periotic, bulla, and a bunch of teeth. Sadly, when it was published, the lacrimal was mentioned nowhere in the description and Jim Goedert now fears the lacrimal to be lost. Regardless, this specimen looks about what you would predict the ancestor of all Aetiocetidae to look like, and also resembles Mammalodon and Janjucetus. As a matter of fact, at a conference presentation this was first reported as a northern hemisphere mammalodontid, and they stuck with the name Borealodon - even though the position was recovered as outside each clade. We consistently recovered Borealodon as the other sister taxon to Coronodonidae, but it shares really only one synapomorphy: possessing more than five accessory cusps on the cheek teeth.

Concluding Remarks

As expansive as this study is, it really only took about six months of furious writing to get done - but supported by five years of data collection on our part. We now have one of the best illustrated and described examples of a toothed mysticete, following earlier inspirations like the monographic descriptions of Mystacodon selenensis by Muizon et al. (2019) and Mammalodon colliveri by Fitzgerald (2010). We've reported new specimens of Coronodon havensteini, the first growth series for a toothed mysticete - illustrating that some features change ontogenetically. Great care must be taken when diagnosing new taxa that differences are not actually ontogenetic differences rather than taxonomic - no small problem, given that virtually all other toothed mysticetes are known from a single published specimen and little effort has been diverted towards assessing ontogenetic status. We reported two new species, Coronodon planifrons and Coronodon newtonorum, and identified ancestor-descendant relationships within the group. We also named the Coronodonidae to include some unnamed taxa from Charleston, like ChM PV 5720. Coronodon has some palatal foramina - but they're perhaps not large or numerous enough to indicate the presence of baleen. We confirmed that Coronodon has 12 rather than 11 mandibular teeth, demonstrating that it is one of the most plesiomorphic cetaceans to have evolved polydonty - and perhaps indicating a single origin for polydonty at the base of Neoceti. On that note, we found that perhaps our knowledge of the origin of Neoceti, and morphological character support for Neoceti - is not as well known or understood as previously assumed. Coronodon is probably a mysticete - but perhaps not. We've also identified a couple of unusual North Pacific toothed mysticetes that may be closely related to Coronodon, and possible members of the Coronodonidae.

What's next? Two big things for our team: first up, we barely touched on the feeding morphology of Coronodon. There's another paper in the works about this, with a looming deadline. In the distance, we will need to publish on and name "Hoss", the larger unnamed coronodonid represented by ChM PV 5720.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

New fossils of Coronodon 2: two new species of toothed mysticetes from South Carolina

 This is a continuation of my blog 'coverage' of our new monograph - for an introduction to the big new paper, see the first post in this series here. For the third post in this series, click here.

But first - it's been a pretty dark day for me and Sarah, so I need to share some memes that were made out of/inspired by my artwork:

Family portrait of Coronodon that I illustrated last year and finished in February: upper left, juvenile Coronodon havensteini; lower left, adult Coronodon havensteini; upper right, Coronodon planifrons; lower right, Coronodon newtonorum. Graphite and digital, 2023. Original about 10x14".

My illustration has inspired some pretty fantastic memes - my artwork does look like the other Coronodon whales are laughing at the one. Cartoon by M. Nur Yahya on twitter.

A variation of an older meme - by @natespithe on Twitter.

One of my favorites - by Henry Tsai on Facebook.

And lastly, the Coronodon whales cartoonized by @Yoofilos on Twitter into the "Me and the Boys" meme from above.

Stratigraphic Distribution of Coronodon

I'll dive into the rationale for naming new species shortly, but first I'd like to discuss the stratigraphic distribution of specimens. The holotype skull of Coronodon havensteini was collected from a submerged exposure of the Ashley Formation - a late early Oligocene sandy limestone. It's firm, with some concretions here and there, generally kind of a brownish tan to pale yellow color and occasionally can be olive green or khaki - frequently fossiliferous, with sparse mollusks, barnacles, and bryozoans. The Ashley Formation has been dated with Strontium isotopes to about 28-30 Ma - uppermost Rupelian, which is the stage occupying the first half of the Oligocene epoch. All new specimens we referred to Coronodon havensteini are also from the Ashley Formation. The two specimens that ended up being holotypes of new species - CCNHM 166 and ChM PV 2778 - were both collected from the Chandler Bridge Formation. When Al Sanders and others named the Chandler Bridge Formation in 1986, they remarked that the whale faunas were so similar that they were likely only separated in time by about a million years or so. Somewhat surprisingly, strontium isotope dates indicate that there's about 4-5 million years - and that the Chandler Bridge Formation is 24.7-23.5 Ma or so (Weems et al., 2016). Point is - these Coronodon specimens are separated by a bit of time. There are some other subtle differences: eomysticetids seem to be stratigraphically separated, with all specimens of Micromysticetus being derived from the Ashley and all specimens of Eomysticetus originating from the Chandler Bridge. Xenorophid odontocetes appear somewhat stratigraphically separated: more plesiomorphic taxa, like Xenorophus and Albertocetus, make up most of the xenorophid assemblage from the Ashley whereas there are additional, more derived taxa in the Chandler Bridge including Cotylocara and Echovenator, as well as at least one additional Cotylocara-like genus that has not yet been named. There are perhaps a half dozen waipatiids in the Chandler Bridge, but only two or three forms from the Ashley, and they seem to be restricted: a dwarf form, and Ediscetus osbornei named a few years ago. Another species of Ediscetus may be present in the Ashley - and that glut of waipatiid specimens will be my major project this summer. 

Stratigraphic distribution of Coronodonidae in the Oligocene rocks of Charleston, South Carolina.

 The holotype skull of
Coronodon planifrons, CCNHM 166, the Volcko-Chapman whale.

Recognizing the Existence of New Species of Coronodon

Discovering a new species - whether you're digging it up and doing all the sweaty work, or the actual anatomist doing the descriptive work - is not always obvious. For a long time I thought there was a single species - after all, I've already reported (or interpreted) both of the odontocetes Albertocetus meffordorum and Ankylorhiza tiedemani as being present in the Ashley and Chandler Bridge formations. My working hypothesis was "one species in both units" - which I feel, from the perspective of a lumper, the most conservative approach. When I arrived at CCNHM in 2015, the specimen that is now the holotype of Coronodon planifrons, the "Volcko whale" CCNHM 166, and the "Coosaw whale" CCNHM 164, were both in our collections but not included in the original study. The "Volcko whale" was found in 2010 and the Coosaw whale a few years earlier (each within a couple miles of our house!). I sat down and looked for differences earlier on back in 2018 and actually failed to make a number of observations I made later - but I did make one important observation back then: the holotype specimen of Coronodon havensteini, and what is now the holotype of Coronodon planifrons (CCNHM 166), had differently shaped supraorbital processes of the frontal. There are these little processes on either side of the eye socket, helpfully named the preorbital and postorbital process (measuring between them, by the way, gives you eye socket size). In Coronodon havensteini these processes are the same thickness if you measure from the inside out. However, in CCNHM 166, the postorbital process is quite a bit thicker than the preorbital process (and vice versa). Now, these bones are also very porous so I thought, maybe this is just caused by wear to the skull, and discounted species-level differences.

A comparison of the preorbital and postorbital processes of the three species of Coronodon - some of the earliest observations I made. Coronodon havensteini has pre- and postorbital processes of equal depth, Coronodon planifrons has a deeper postorbital process, and Coronodon newtonorum has a deeper preorbital process.

About a year ago I noticed that the supraorbital process of the frontal, in anterior view, was nearly horizontal - and I only noticed this because I but the CCNHM 166 skull, along with referred C. havensteini specimen CCNHM 164, backwards, with the posterior end of the skull facing the wall. In both CCNHM 164 and the holotype CCNHM 108, the supraorbital processes descend at an angle and are decidedly not horizontal. I think I made that observation during a meeting. So, I pulled the specimens out and started more detailed comparisons. I noticed that the sagittal crest was much longer in CCNHM 166, and that the frontal-parietal suture is much more V-shaped. I also noticed that the sternomastoid fossa - a D-shaped rugose pit for the sternomastoid muscle, which is positioned on the squamosal bone and just above the jaw joint - has this deep trough that rises up along the side of the nuchal crest; this is missing in Coronodon havensteini. At this point I was more or less convinced that the number of anatomical differences had exceeded individual variation for Coronodon havensteini and instead suggested to me that CCNHM 166 represented a different species.

The holotype skull and mandible of Coronodon planifrons, CCNHM 166 - the Volcko-Chapman whale.

A parallel development happened in Fall 2017 after the first paper was published - collector Taffie Chapman, who found parts of CCNHM 166 in the field, donated specimens she had first found and kept. A bunch of missing parts clicked back together - for example, the condyle of the mandible was in her material! Taffie kept one tooth for herself, a nice premolar, and I did ask for it - but she politely insisted, and I knew better than to push it. Included amongst her material were several more vertebrae and a bunch of partial teeth. As a result, we now call it the "Volcko-Chapman whale". Years later, last summer actually, Jonathan Geisler and I finally got a chance to compare these side by side and we realized several teeth from the original sample were improperly glued together - and, within 20 minutes of when Geisler was supposed to drive back to New York after a vacation here in Charleston. I airscribed away some putty in the prep lab and texted him photos of the preliminarily reassembled teeth - he texted back something along the lines of "this changes quite a bit."

 The periotics (ear bones) and dentition of Coronodon planifrons, the Volcko-Chapman whale.

One of the first changes were the smallest (and furthest posterior) molars - the smallest one had broken in half, one half found and kept by each collector. I glued them back together, revealing a tiny upper third molar (M3) that was approximately 2/3 the diameter of the second to last tooth (upper second molar, M2). The M3 is unknown in the holotype, but the upper M2 is preserved, and the "Coosaw whale" specimen of Coronodon havensteini (CCNHM 164) has both the M2 and M3. These teeth are of similar size in Coronodon havensteini, and also larger than both teeth in CCNHM 166 (Coronodon planifrons). In other words, CCNHM 166 "Volcko-Chapman whale" (Coronodon planifrons) has 1) smaller molars and 2) molars that decrease in size posteriorly. We initially thought there were some differences in cusp counts, but that changed when we settled upon the final identification of teeth to position after discovering the tiny size of the M3 - after this, the cusp counts were quite similar. I took another look at the earbones, and found that there were also a few features of the periotic bone that were unique - for example, the lateral tuberosity extends far laterally, whereas it is a small bump in the holotype of Coronodon havensteini. All of these features ended up in our diagnosis* of Coronodon planifrons. The tiny size of the upper M3 also permitted us to refer an isolated molar to Coronodon planifrons, also showcasing what the tooth shape would be without any tooth wear. I suggested naming the species after its most distinctive feature: horizontal frontal bones over the orbit, hence Coronodon planifrons.

*The first time I read a scientific paper and saw diagnosis for a species I thought "what the hell? A diagnosis is for a disease" but as it turns out, a diagnosis in zoology and botany (or taxonomy in general) is a list of the different anatomical/morphological features that are used to identify specimens of that species. In a sense, it is one of the most important parts of the reporting of a new species, genus, or family. Ewan Fordyce impressed upon me how important it is to craft a useful, lasting diagnosis that future researchers can use. One pet peeve of mine is the lazy use of synapomorphies from a cladistic analysis and restricting your diagnosis to just features from the cladistic character list: these diagnoses are usually not very useful. Medical diagnoses are constructed similarly: a suite of diagnostic features used to identify a medical condition.

 The main skull part of ChM PV 2778, the holotype of
Coronodon newtonorum - as I first saw it in 2012.

 Placing the mandible of ChM PV 2778 (
Coronodon newtonorum) back into place for the first time.

In parallel, I had not looked at ChM PV 2778 - the "Newton" whale - for quite some time. I knew it had a partial mandible and much of a skull, and some earbones. I looked at it again in early spring 2022 and had the following revelations: 1) the mandible could actually be pieced back together, and it was in three pieces until I asked curator Matt Gibson to reconstruct it; 2) there was a nice isolated cheek tooth bearing the same number that at some point had been separated and was stored in a different cabinet. After the first revelation (which, mind you, was about the same time we realized that Al Sanders' conference abstracts indicated this specimen, and "Hoss" - ChM PV 5720 - had 12 instead of 11 mandibular teeth), I took a couple snapshots of the mandible fragments reassembled (not yet glued) and realized it looked quite a bit different from Coronodon havensteini. Instead of a straight ventral margin, the ventral margin in the "Newton whale" (ChM PV 2778) was convex. Likewise, the alveolar (dorsal) margin of the mandible was more strongly concave than in Coronodon havensteini. I looked again at the rostrum, and it too had a convex margin - indicating that ChM PV 2778 had a "smiling" profile of the lower jaw. Out of caution, we waited for Matt Gibson to glue it back together in case I was wrong - but it looked the same when I returned to take photos for the paper. This was the first time I thought that there might be a third species present - which surprised me: I assumed that we might have two chronospecies: C. havensteini in the late early Oligocene Ashley Formation and a younger chronospecies in the Chandler Bridge. I assumed this out of being cautious, conservative, and being a lumper. I swear to god, some folks - and dinosaur researchers in particular are guilty of this sin - seem to think every specimen is its own species and genus.

The holotype skull, teeth, and mandible of Coronodon newtonorum, ChM PV 2778, the Newton whale.

Upon further examination, I noted that the isolated cheek tooth of ChM PV 2778 is an upper tooth, and that it fit best into the sockets (alveolus) for the upper M1. The tooth is somewhat smaller than the M1 of Coronodon havensteini, an observation I duplicated for the lower 2nd premolar. The periotic is quite a bit more slender than in the holotypes of Coronodon havensteini or Coronodon planifrons - and in many respects, it resembles the juvenile specimens of Coronodon havensteini, despite itself being an adult specimen. One feature it shares with Coronodon planifrons is that long lateral tuberosity of the periotic - something lacking in Coronodon havensteini. As it happens, this specimen had a manuscript name and its own genus name - at this point, known only to those who visit Charleston Museum collections and look at the specimen labels where they're written - but the species name actually was proposed to be "newtoni" by Al Sanders and Larry Barnes. We went with this for two reasons: 1) it honored the earlier work by Al Sanders; 2) Claude and Albert Newton found and collected the specimen; and 3) the Newton family participated in 'volunteer night' at Charleston Museum for many years. There was just one catch, which we discovered during the proofing stage: "newtoni" honors only a single male member of the Newton family... and we didn't know which one, because Claude and Albert Newton both participated in the excavation. So, at the last minute, we changed the name to "newtonorum" to honor the whole family, and Claude and Albert in particular. I have not yet met anyone from the Newton family, but I'm hoping to now that the word is out! 

Line drawings of the skulls of Coronodon havensteini, Coronodon planifrons, and Coronodon newtonorum from the Oligocene rocks of Charleston, SC.

Other Specimens and the Importance of Publishing on the the "Dregs"

In addition to describing the new specimens of Coronodon havensteini and the two new species, I also wanted to take the opportunity to include a bunch of more fragmentary specimens. These are specimens that 1) could have conceivably been published as a separate paper but 2) the submission/revision process would have probably eaten up more time than the specimens are worth. Since my time is at a premium compared to earlier in my career, I decided instead to include these as 'accessory' data, so to speak. These come in two categories: 1) a bunch of isolated teeth and 2) a partial cranium from the Cooper River.

Isolated teeth of Coronodon from the Charleston embayment. Most of these are isolated, except for C-F, which are two associated teeth. Specimen K-L is one of the oldest discoveries made of Coronodon, found in 1974.

The isolated teeth constitute every single specimen we are aware of in museum collections at CCNHM and Charleston Museum. There may be more teeth in the South Carolina State Museum, which we did not sample. The lion's share of these lack good data and are identified as Coronodon sp., since it is unclear what species they belong to. One tooth, mentioned above, was identified as the distinctive M3 of Coronodon planifrons. Confusingly, this specimen was found at the same time and locality as the Coronodon planifrons holotype - but is from the same side as the M3, rather than the opposite side - so must represent a different specimen. The preservation is also not terribly similar. Altogether, there are 13 isolated teeth, found as early as 1973 (and possibly earlier). In contrast, I see at least a couple dozen teeth of the giant dolphin Ankylorhiza collected from the Charleston area and posted onto fossil groups on Facebook every year. I've estimated in the past that there are probably in excess of 100 Ankylorhiza teeth for every isolated Coronodon tooth. I'm only aware of three such teeth found since I started in 2015, and about 2-3 additional teeth remaining in private collections, in addition to the 13 isolated teeth we described. Coronodon is a very rare fossil, and I'm confident we probably have published virtually all of those discovered in the Charleston area.

 Partial skull CCNHM 8745 - a partial braincase indicating the presence of a third member of the Coronodon clade, now known as the family Coronodonidae.

A partial skull consisting of a phosphatized braincase with a bit of attached matrix has been floating around in our collection for years - sadly, the collector data is lacking, and the most likely collector - Stephen Miller - passed away a few years ago. According to Mark Havenstein, the preservation resembled fossils from the bottom of the Cooper and Edisto rivers, but not from the Wando River where the holotype of Coronodon havensteini and Inermorostrum xenops were discovered - river fossils there were typically grey to black, rather than brown. A clue to the origin of this specimen came from a sea turtle beak published in 2017 by Rob Weems and Mace Brown, who at the time, noted that the specimen had been collected from the Cooper River near Goose Creek, South Carolina. They identified it as the sea turtle Euclastes, and noted that fossils of the archaeocete Dorudon serratus were found with it on the river bottom and attributed to uppermost Eocene strata. The supposed archaeocete specimens, I was told on a different occasion, were this skull and an atlas vertebra thought to be associated with it - however, the atlas was actually from the giant dolphin Ankylorhiza. The Ankylorhiza atlas suggested Oligocene age - and indeed, there are not really any Eocene rocks in the subsurface there - not as shallow as the river bottom - and the river erodes instead into the Ashley Formation. While it's possible the specimens could have been transported from upstream, the vertebra is clearly from a large odontocete and the skull was a good match for Coronodon or something similar. Further, adhering matrix most closely resembles the Ashley Formation and there are these distinctive little convex clams preserved that are common in Ashley Formation nodules from Lowcountry rivers. I used to think that perhaps it was intermediate in morphology between Coronodon and Basilosauridae, but the more I looked at it the more it resembled Coronodon. The differences are mostly around the interorbital region of the skull: it has tiny, short nasal bones that are flat. Some aspects resemble Coronodon more than Basilosauridae and indicate this specimen belongs to Neoceti - the premaxilla contacts the frontal bone (in Basilosauridae the premaxilla terminates further anteriorly and is 'pinched' out by the nasal and maxilla), and the nasals are quite short with the 'blowhole' positioned far posteriorly, just somewhat in front of the eye sockets (resembling Coronodon) rather than halfway out on the rostrum (like Basilosauridae).

So, why publish on the "dregs" of collections? Two major reasons. First, out of scientific thoroughness: I've seen the dangers of "headhunting" - focusing on only the very best specimens, relegating the "dregs" of museum collections to oblivion. This is an underappreciated problem - from my perspective, I've seen so many specimens forgotten by disinterested or unthorough researchers sit untouched in museum collections. Why should we bother keeping such specimens if they're not going to be useful? I have the radical idea that *most* specimens should be published, as many, if not most, are more informative than is generally appreciated. Second, such specimens can provide unexpected benefits. For example: our suite of teeth sugests that Coronodon is quite rare as far as Oligocene marine mammal fosils are concerned. And, more critically, the 'ugly duckling' skull CCNHM 8745 may not be the most informative specimen of our study, but it does indicate that there are three coronodonid genera present in Oligocene rocks here: Coronodon, the larger Basilosaurus-sized cousin "Hoss" (e.g. ChM PV 5720), and the taxon represented by CCNHM 8745.

Introducing the New Family Coronodonidae 

The recognition of at least one other unnamed genus of Coronodon-like whale in this paper - along with a third containing the unstudied specimen ChM PV 5720, aka "Hoss" - led us to name the family level clade containing Coronodon. Unfortunately, Coronodontidae is preoccupied by some Devonian sharks, the type genus of which is Coronodus. Family names in taxonomy are pretty rigid: they have to have "-idae" onto the end of the type genus name. So, the other family I'm familiar with, Eomysticetidae? "-idae" is swapped for the last syllable in Eomysticetus. The correct familial emendation of Coronodon would be Coronodontidae - which is preoccupied. So, in lieu of that, according to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), you just add "-idae" onto the end of the genus name, however it is spelled. Hence, Coronodonidae - which admittedly does not slip off the tongue quite as nicely as Coronodontidae, but there's nothing I can really do about it. Whenever "Hoss" gets described, it will be named within the Coronodonidae - and is already recognized as one in our paper. This family, by the way, is diagnosed by a long list of features including a blade-like part of the premaxilla that extends in front of the incisors, dorsally curving nasal bones, a lightly articulated (and possibly flexible) rostrum, deep zygomatic processes with enormous sternomastoid fossae just behind them, large cheek teeth bearing at least five mesial cusps, and cheek teeth that are highly emergent from their sockets - among a bunch of other features.

Next up: part 3 - new observations of the growth and functional anatomy of Coronodon and the surprising results of our phylogenetic analysis: is Coronodon actually a mysticete or could it be a late-surviving archaeocete?