In my last Paleo Profile of 2017 I remarked how last year was positively packed with new species of troodontid dinosaurs. But I could have just as easily said the same about fossil whales. The past year has seen an abundance of ancient cetaceans, including a new fossil dolphin.

Described by Yoshihiro Tanaka and colleagues, the roughly 25-million-year-old cetacean was found in Santa Elena Province, Ecuador. So far, it's only represented by a partial skull from a juvenile animal. Nevertheless, the fossil is something new - Urkudelphis chawpipacha, a member of a group of dolphins called platanistoids that's only represented by a handful of river dolphin species today.

Exactly how Urkudelphis made its living is as yet unclear. The partial skull is missing some of the critical parts related to hearing and feeding, and, as the paleontologists report, it's unknown whether this dolphin lived in the estuaries of its time or ventured further out to sea. But the fact that Urkudelphis was found in Ecuador makes it stand out. Finds of fossil whales are rare along the equator, and, Tanaka and colleagues conclude, Urkudelphis "is a reminder that Oligocene cetaceans may have ranged widely in tropical waters." There's still more out there to find.


The skull of Urkudelphis seen from the top. Credit: Tanaka et al 2017

Name: Urkudelphis chawpipacha

Meaning: Urkudelphis is a combination of Kichwa for mountain and Greek for dolphin. The species name chawpipacha translates to "middle of the world" in reference to Ecuador.

Age: Oligocene, 26-24 million years ago.

Where in the world?: Santa Elena Province, Ecuador. 

What sort of organism?: A whale related to today's Indian river dolphins.

How much of the organism’s is known?: A partial skull.


Tanaka, Y., Abella, J., Aguirre-Fernández, G., Gregori, M., Fordyce, R. 2017. A new tropical Oligocene dolphin from Montañita/Olón, Santa Elena, Ecuador. PLOS ONE. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0188380

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