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Ancient four-legged whale from Peru walked on land, swam in sea

Ancient four-legged whale from Peru walked on land, swam in sea

Scientists have unearthed fossils in a coastal desert of southern Peru of a four-legged whale that thrived both in the sea and on land about 43 million years ago in a discovery that illuminates a pivotal stage in early cetacean evolution.

The four-meter-long mammal, named Peregocetus pacificus, represents a crucial intermediate step before whales became fully adapted to a marine existence, the scientists said on Thursday.

Its four limbs were capable of bearing its weight on land, meaning Peregocetus could return to the rocky coast to rest and perhaps give birth while spending much of its time at sea. Its feet and hands had small hooves and probably were webbed to aid in swimming. With long fingers and toes, and relatively slender limbs, moving around on land may not have been easy.

Its elongated snout and robust teeth — large grasping incisors and canines along with flesh-shearing molars — made Peregocetus adept at catching medium-size prey like fish.

“We think that it was feeding in the water, and that its underwater locomotion was easier than that on land,” said Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences paleontologist Olivier Lambert, who led the research published in the journal Current Biology.

“Some vertebrae of the tail region share strong similarities with semi-aquatic mammals like otters, indicating the tail was predominantly used for underwater locomotion,” Lambert added.

Evolutionary origins

Whale evolutionary origins were poorly understood until the 1990s when fossils of the earliest whales were found. Various fossils have shown that whales evolved a bit more than 50 million years ago in Pakistan and India from hoofed, land-dwelling mammals distantly related to hippos and about the size of a medium-sized dog. It took millions of years for them to spread around the world.

Peregocetus represents the most complete quadrupedal whale skeleton outside India and Pakistan, and the first known from the Pacific region and the Southern Hemisphere.

Its presence in Peru, Lambert said, suggests quadrupedal whales spread from South Asia to North Africa, then crossed the South Atlantic to reach the New World. Peregocetus shows that the first whales to reach the Americas still retained the ability to move on land.

Over time, cetacean front limbs evolved into flippers. The hind limbs eventually become mere vestiges. It was not until about 40 million years ago that the whale lineage evolved into completely marine animals, then split into the two cetacean groups alive today: filter-feeding baleen whales and toothed whales like dolphins and orcas.

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Ban on whale, dolphin captivity poised to become law in Canada

Ban on whale, dolphin captivity poised to become law in Canada

Nearly four years after the legislation was first introduced in Parliament, the Commons fisheries committee has passed a bill banning whale and dolphin captivity in Canada.

S-203, first sponsored by now-retired Liberal senator Wilfred Moore in 2015, bans keeping and breeding cetaceans in captivity through amendments to the Criminal Code — all but ending a practice that was once a staple of the theme park experience in this country.

The bill passed the committee, unamended, on Tuesday with the support of Liberal and NDP MPs.

An amendment to the legislation, however minor, effectively would have torpedoed the bill in the dying days of this Parliament, as a changed bill would have to be sent back to the Senate for another final vote. The bill has faced unprecedented resistance from some Conservative senators in the Red Chamber and there are only eight sitting weeks left in this session.

The committee’s vote — and continuing support for the bill from the Liberal government — amount to a victory for animal rights activists who maintain that holding these highly intelligent creatures in concrete tanks is a cruel and perverse form of entertainment.

“The bill is a simple and straightforward one. It works from the presumption that placing these beautiful creatures into the kinds of pens that they have been kept in is inherently cruel,” Independent Sen. Murray Sinclair, the former judge who helped usher the bill through Parliament after Moore’s retirement, told the Commons fisheries committee.

If it’s passed by Parliament before it rises for summer prior to an expected fall election, the bill will levy fines of up to $200,000 on parks and aquariums that are found to have violated proposed animal cruelty provisions in the Criminal Code.

Camille Labchuk is the executive director of Animal Justice, an advocacy group that has long backed the bill. She said that while the legislation is still facing a parliamentary time crunch, she’s confident it has enough votes to clear the Commons when it comes up for a final vote.

“I am delighted that the Liberals resisted pressure to kill the bill. I think the reason they were convinced to save this legislation is because … of the power of Canadians who contacted these politicians in droves,” she said in an interview with CBC News. (Liberal New Brunswick MP Pat Finnigan withdrew three such amendments Tuesday night.)

“Probably over 20,000 e-mails and phone calls were made in the days proceeding this vote. This [captivity ban] is something Canadians across the country are really ready for. They’ve seen Blackfish and The Cove, they understand that whales and dolphins shouldn’t be kept in tanks anymore — those in the wild travel vast distances, dive deeply, live in complex family structures and enjoy a quality of life that is much better than the abject misery and barrenness of living in a tank.”

Sea World trainer Michelle Shoemaker, seen here in 2014, hugs killer whale Kayla as she works on a routine before a show, in Orlando, Fla. Sea World Entertainment, Inc. has faced intense criticism over its treatment of its captive killer whales. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont. — the only remaining facility in this country that is committed to holding these mammals over the long term — has been a vocal opponent of the bill, saying it would devastate attendance and threaten conservation efforts at theme parks where these animals are on display. It also has said the bill threatens the seasonal employment of hundreds of local residents during the summer months.

However, existing cetacean stocks will be grandfathered by the bill, meaning the park can keep all the animals it currently owns.

According to data supplied by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Marineland owns about 61 cetaceans: 55 beluga whales, five bottlenose dolphins and one orca, or “killer whale.” The Vancouver Aquarium has just one such mammal left.

“Marineland has enough beluga whales in existence to probably continue for another 30 years, so no jobs are going to be lost as a result of this in the immediate future,” Sinclair said.

“This [bill] is necessary because, in the long run, our society will be much better off if we start to treat other creatures … in the same way that we ourselves feel that we should be treated.”

The hope of many activists is that some or all of the mammals currently in captivity will be “retired” eventually and moved to an open water seaside sanctuary in Nova Scotia.

Andrew Burns, the lawyer for Marineland, has argued the bill is unconstitutional and has flagged potential legal problems the park might face when a currently pregnant cetacean gives birth after the bill — which bans birthing — is passed into law.

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Marine scientists warn of risky rescue of orcas and belugas from Russian 'whale jail'

Marine scientists warn of risky rescue of orcas and belugas from Russian ‘whale jail’

Some of the world’s top marine biologists are meeting in Moscow this week to try to save nearly 100 whales — including 11 orcas and 87 belugas — held captive since autumn in what critics have dubbed Russia’s “whale jail.”

Since November, the cetaceans have been kept in small pens, which are often on the verge of freezing over, in a bay not far from Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific Coast.

The whales were captured by several Russian companies intent on selling them to Chinese aquariums, a practice that until now has been perfectly legal in Russia.

“These are conditions that the animals shouldn’t be in. Their health is slowly deteriorating,” said Grigory Tsidulko, a marine mammal expert who’s been consulting with Greenpeace over the fate of the creatures.

The team arriving in Moscow on Thursday is headed up by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the 81-year-old son of the famous French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. The group, which includes international experts as well as some of Russia’s top whale researchers, is expected to travel to Vladivostok over the weekend to survey the health of the whales and present options to Russian authorities for releasing them.

A public outcry led by animal welfare activists in Russia and supported by Hollywood celebrities such as Canadian-born animal welfare campaigner Pamela Anderson, pushed the government of President Vladimir Putin to pronounce that the whales should be freed.

If that happens, biologists say it could be the largest mass release of captive cetaceans ever. But many who’ve been following the saga of the “jailed” whales have their doubts it will.

An overhead view of the pens holding belugas and orcas at the facility in Srednyaya Bay, in southeastern Russia. (Reuters)

There’s also a growing debate about whether the animals could survive. “It would be absolutely irresponsible if you just open the pens and let those whales swim away,” said Tsidulko, noting that orcas are highly social creatures and maintain close family units in the wild.

“They have never been in the places where they’re being kept in captivity. Right now, there’s not enough food for them where they’re being held.”

Brisk trade

Russian environmental groups have been pushing the Putin government for years to stop the trade in ocean mammals. The four companies that captured these animals were issued legal permits to keep the whales for “educational” reasons. They then quickly turned around and cut deals with Chinese marine parks, where an orca can sell for up to $5 million US each, according to several animal welfare groups that have investigated the practice.

Greenpeace estimates a beluga can sell for up to $150,000 US.

Marine parks have been rapidly expanding in China, with more than 60 already operating and dozens more in the planning stages. The environmental group the China Cetacean Alliance claims 491 marine mammals have already been put into captivity in the country.

Statistics from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) suggest as many as 13 orcas caught in Russian waters were sold to China between 2013 and 2016.

Marine mammal expert Grigory Tsidulko has been consulting with Greenpeace over how the captive whales should be freed. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

In April 2018, Russia passed a new law to close a loophole allowing the “educational” capture of belugas and orcas. Tsidulko said it’s unclear how the new rules are being enforced, and whether companies will use other parts of Russia’s fishery act to continue catching whales.

Russia’s fisheries department does not consider orcas or killer whales to be endangered species.

Distant homes

Russian police intervened to stop the sale of the whales in the Vladivostok pens last month, claiming the companies didn’t have the proper permits, leaving the animals in limbo.

Many of the whales were captured near Sakhalin Island in the Sea of Okhotsk, which is more than 1,500 kilometres away from where the sea mammals are being kept now.

Russian authorities have suggested the companies responsible may need to lift the whales onto barges and transport them back to the places where they were captured. However, the region won’t be ice-free — and thus easily accessible — until the summer.

There are also concerns that the youngest belugas, some of which were babies when they were caught, have become too accustomed to being fed by humans in the months they’ve been in captivity.

Tsidulko said his fear is that some, perhaps even most, of the whales may be deemed “non-releasable,” and end up being sold to clients in China.

The video below shows some of the whales being held in captivity:

Since November, beluga and orca whales have been kept in small pens not far from Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific Coast. 4:06

All of this has led activists to wonder how many of the whales will ever live in the wild again.

“At the moment, nobody has said these animals will be released, and nobody has said they no longer belong to the companies,” said Tsidulko.

Catching continues    

Later this month, the fisheries department will hold public hearings on setting a total allowable catch (TAC) of 10 orcas and 82 belugas for 2020. 

While some of the animals may be slaughtered and used for food by Indigenous communities, Tsidulko laments the fact that Russia “remains one of the few countries that sells live cetaceans for public displays and shows.”

“On the one side, we are saying that they are so intelligent and so much like humans. On the other hand, we’re saying if someone wants to have a 20-minute show with a bucket of popcorn, then we can catch them and bring them for public pleasure. There’s something really wrong with this.”

In Canada, a bill that would ban aquariums from having dolphins and whales in captivity has already passed through the Senate, and is now in the House of Commons. Critics, including the owners of Marineland in southern Ontario, have said the bill will hurt science and legitimate research programs.

Vancouver’s Aquarium, which used to keep orcas and belugas for public performances, also initially strongly opposed the legislation. It no longer puts the whales on public display.

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