How did whales get so big? Paleontologists say they’ve figured it out.

May 31, 2017

By Ben Guarino

Blue whales are the most massive animals to exist in the history of animals. Dreadnoughtus and those other thundering, 60-ton dinosaurs? Bantamweights next to one of today’s 100-ton Balaenoptera musculus.

“We truly live in an age of giants,” said Nicholas D. Pyenson, an expert in the paleobiology of marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Blue whales, he said, can grow as long as three city buses parked end to end. Living blue whales would be even bigger, too, if it weren’t for the sailors who killed most of the 110-foot, quarter-of-a-million-pounders 100 years ago.

Yet evolutionarily speaking, whales are recent leviathans. After the largest dinosaurs died off, land mammals bulked up, leading to elephant-size rhinoceroses, sloths and armadillos about 35 million years ago. The ancestors of today’s giant whales, meanwhile, stayed curiously small.

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