Conventional thinking has long held that pelvic bones in whales and dolphins, evolutionary throwbacks to ancestors that once walked on land, are vestigial and will disappear millions of years from now. But researchers from University of Southern California and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) have upended that assumption.
The scientists argue in a paper just published in the journal Evolution that cetacean (whale and dolphin) pelvic bones certainly do have a purpose and that they're specifically targeted, by selection, for mating.
The muscles that control a cetacean's penis are attached to the creature's pelvic bones. Matthew Dean, assistant professor at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and Jim Dines, collections manager of mammalogy at NHM, wanted to find out if pelvic bones could be evolutionarily advantageous by impacting the overall amount of control an individual creature has with its penis.
The pair spent four years examining whale and dolphin pelvic bones, using a 3D laser scanner to study the shape and size of the samples in extreme detail.
Then they gathered as much data as they could find -- reaching back to whaler days -- on whale testis size relative to body mass. The testis data was important because in nature, species in "promiscuous," competitive mating environments (where females mate with multiple males) develop larger testes, relative to their body mass, in order to outdo the competition.
When Dean and Dines compared the relative sizes of pelvic bones with testes, they found that the bigger the testes (relative to body size) the bigger the relative pelvic bones -- the competitive mating situation seemed to prompt the development of larger pelvic bones, making them not so useless after all.
To rule out overall skeleton size being the culprit behind the larger pelvic bones, the duo also compared testis size with rib size and found no corresponding increase.
"Our research really changes the way we think about the evolution of whale pelvic bones in particular, but more generally about structures we call 'vestigial.' As a parallel, we are now learning that our appendix is actually quite important in several immune processes, not a functionally useless structure," said Dean in a press release.