Apr. 16, 2016 | By Kira

Dolphins are widely recognized for being among the most intelligent and social animals on Earth, and thanks 3D scanning technology, scientists are a few steps closer to understanding both how and when that came to be.

Beyond jumping through hoops and performing tricks at SeaWorld, dolphins and other members of the odontocete, or ‘toothed whale,’ family, have proven the ability to learn as individuals and even pass that knowledge on to others. A key to these magnificent mammals’ evolved intelligence is their ability to hunt, navigate, and communicate via echolocation, a complex sensory system that bounces high-frequency sounds off of objects in order to reveal their size, shape, and distance in great detail, even from many meters away (it has even been compared to a sort of natural 3D scanning process.)

Comparison of a 26-million-year-old inner ear capsule (left) and a modern day dolphin (right)

Scientists have known for many years that echolocation has been a crucial factor in the evolution of toothed whale species, allowing them to detect, produce and analyze high frequency sounds far beyond human and other mammals’ capabilities. In fact, toothed whales are the only marine mammals to use echolocation, and thanks to this unique ability, they have managed to spread around the globe, becoming the most diverse of all marine mammals.

However, what scientists have been left to wonder is just when did this game-changing ability first appear? What was the evolutionary path that led to the clever, playful, and quick-witted dolphins we marvel at today?

Using 3D imaging and 3D printing technology, an international team of researchers from Monash University and Museum Victoria have come closer than ever to finding out, and now believe the answer could be as much as 30 million years ago.

The researchers, led by PhD student Travis Park, kindly borrowed a 26-million-year-old ear fossil, originally found on the shores of Camp Lejune, North Carolina, and kept in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in D.C. The fossil belonged to one of the earliest known ancestors of today’s toothed whales, a species known as the Xenorophidae.

How the fossil was scanned. (Credit: Travis Park)

Back in Melbourne, they used cutting-edge, microCT scanning to create a detailed 3D image of the inside of the fossil, getting a first-hand view of the inside of this ancient yet incredibly well-tuned ear. They subsequently 3D printed an enlarged physical model of the inner-ear bone, also known as the cochlea. Park and his colleagues quickly realized that what the 3D data revealed was “nothing short of extraordinary."

“When I first looked at the inner ear of the xenorophid, I was blown away by just how similar this incredibly old toothed whale was to a modern echolocating dolphin,” said Travis.

The original, inner ear bone fossil and a 10x enlarged, 3D printed model 

As palaeontologist Shaena Montanari explains, the 3D digital reconstruction revealed that the xenorophid’s cochlea possessed numerous high frequency hearing adaptations, including a reduced number of turns in the spiral of the cochlea and an overall shorter cochlear length.

For us non-paleontologists, the researchers said that these findings are extremely significant, as they confirm that toothed whales were already using advanced echolocation as far back as 26 million years ago, and potentially, even further. That means that millions upon millions of years before the first humans walked the earth, early dolphins were already developing a complex communications system based on sounds we simply cannot hear.

This, in turn, helped them to become the most diverse mammalian species in the underwater world, and one of the most intelligent animals on earth.

However, in answering one question, the detailed 3D fossil scan opens the door to several more: "Our paper shows even the earliest known fossil odontocetes have all the tools for echolocation seen in living dolphins,” explained Dr Erich Fitzgerald, Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at Museum Victoria, and co-author of the study . “But they must have evolved from something that didn't quite have all the tricks of the odontocete trade. What were those animals like and how did they start down the path to sonic supersenses? The quest for the origins of this extraordinary group of creatures continues."

The researchers published their findings in the journal Biology Letters under the title “Ultrasonic Hearing and Echolocation in the Earliest Toothed Whales.” In the near future, they hope to continue studying and comparing ancient odontocete fossils to get an even better understanding of how and when these mammals uncovered their unique echolocational abilities.

Though still in its early stages, 3D scanning and 3D printing technology could continue to play an important role in this research. According to Fitzgerald, it is the perfect technology for gathering invaluable information: “You get all the glorious detail of what’s inside the fossil, but it’s a completely non-destructive process — win, win!”



Posted in 3D Scanning



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