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Remembering Peregocetus pacificus — modern whales' otter-like ancestor

The new fossil offers insight into when whales returned to the oceans millions of years ago.

  • Researchers discovered a fossil of a four-legged, amphibious whale off the coast of Peru.
  • The fossil is among the oldest of its kind at 42.6 million years old, and its skeletal structure offers insights into the transition of whales back into the ocean.
  • One of the more exciting findings is that this species suggests that these ancient whales came to South America by swimming across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa and spread across the globe from there.

The evolutionary path of whales has traced a rather circuitous route. First, their ancient ancestors inhabited the oceans, like all life on Earth did. The ocean was a pretty good spot; water provided protection from the sun's rays, there was no concern about drying out, and sources of energy were plentiful. Animals stayed in the oceans for at least 600 million years.

At the earliest, life exited the oceans and adapted to life on land about 500 million years ago, though estimates vary. Eventually, some of this life became part of the clade Laurasiatheria, from which a common ancestor gave rise to giraffes, zebras, hippopotamuses, and — although it seems peculiar — whales. Unlike the other members of their clade, the ancient whale decided that life on dry land wasn't all it cracked up to be and returned to the ocean; there, they eventually lost their legs and grew to become the behemoths we know them as today, though their time on land means they still need to breathe air.

A paper published in Current Biology on April 4 provides a new glimpse into whales' transition back into the oceans. Olivier Lambert and colleagues discovered an exciting fossil of a new species — a four-legged, amphibious whale that the researchers dubbed Peregocetus pacificus. Not only is this new fossil the most complete one of an ancient whale found outside of Indo-Pakistan, it's also the first quadrupedal whale skeleton found in the entire Pacific Ocean. What's more, it's likely one of the oldest such specimens ever discovered — this skeleton is 42.6 million years old.

Unlike the passive giants we're familiar with, P. pacificus didn't leisurely filter krill through baleen. Instead, it's elongated snout and sharp teeth enabled it to prey on relatively large creatures, likely bony fish. But its anatomy suggests an even more interesting life for this species, and it has to do with the species' name, "Peregocetus pacificus," which means "the traveling whale that reached the Pacific Ocean." This is for good reason: P. pacificus got around.

Far-flung relations

This species of whale was about four meters long and possessed small hooves, meaning it could easily walk on land if need be. Its skeletal structure suggests that it probably swam the way otters do, by undulating its body and tail while simultaneously paddling with its hind limbs.

Its features are similar to those found from other ancient whales in the midst of their transition to the oceans. But these other fossils were found in West Africa, Morocco, and Nigeria, while P. pacificus was found near Peru. What business does this new species have sharing features with fossils found a continent away?

The researchers suspect that P. pacificus was capable of swimming long distances, distances so long that they could cross the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to eastern South America. This would have been an easier feat then than it is today. The two continents during P. pacificus's day were more than two times closer than their modern distance, and the current would have helped them move westward.

From there, P. pacificus probably hugged the South America coastline, traveling north, crossing over Central America (which was underwater during this period, the Middle Eocene), and then moving south again along the South American coast. Ultimately, this particular specimen found its way to the Playa Media Luna in Peru, died, and was dug up 42.6 million years later.

Llambert et al., 2019

This figure shows how ancient whales spread across the globe. The circular dot on the right represents the suspected origin, while the star on the left represents the site where P. pacificus was found. Note the transition from Africa to South America, marked by the roman numeral III.

This finding helps confirm that modern whales once walked on land alongside other ungulates, such as ancient camels and deer. Over time, species like P. pacificus found it better in the oceans. Gradually, they lost hind legs, and their fore legs became flippers. Today, some whales still sport vestigial hind legs concealed inside their bodies. They grew to enormous sizes, lost their teeth, and replaced them with baleen. Seeing P. pacificus's fossil offers us a snapshot of a moment in time 42.6 million years ago, demonstrating the remarkable adaptability of life on Earth.

Behold, the tiny hind limbs (at the left below the tail) of the early whale Dorudon.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
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Over 40% of Americans now support some form of socialism

A new Gallup polls shows the rising support for socialism in the United States.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Socialism is experiencing a boom in support among Americans.
  • 43% of Americans now view socialism as "a good thing".
  • There are also more people (51%) against socialism as political stances hardened.
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Following sex, some men have unexpected feelings – study

A new study shows that some men's reaction to sex is not what you'd expect, resulting in a condition previously observed in women.

Credit: Pixabay
Sex & Relationships
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  • Some men reportedly get sad and upset.
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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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