Evolution of Whales

Mitchell W. Colgan
College of Charleston
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The students read two articles on the evolution of whales and search the web. The students' writing assignment requires them to outline the evolution of whales using major fossil finds. Students start with Pakicetidae and end with the appearance of Mysticeti and Odontoceti lines.

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The assignment used in my History of Life honors geology class. It is the second class in the general education science sequence. Most students are non-science majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

They understand the concepts of natural selection and descent with modification. They have had several lectures on mammal evolution and a lecture on modern whales.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a stand alone exercise that support lecture material on mammal evolution. This is last of four writing assignments in the class.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The students use the fossils to trace the evolution of whales from land dwelling animals to aquatic beasts. Using the fossils, the students gain a better understanding of the Darwin's idea of "Descent with Modification."

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The assignment involves analysis of fossil data and chemical proxy information to illustrate the concept of evolution.

Other skills goals for this activity

Writing and searching the web.

Description of the activity/assignment

For this written assignment, the students outline the evolution of whales from land dwelling animals to aquatic beasts. Rather than an essay, they produce a detailed outline of the major modifications that occurred during this transition, such as hearing, propulsion, shape, limbs, and several others. They start with Start with Pakicetidae and end with Mysticeti and Odontoceti lines. For each fossil species, they describe the fossil, discuss the anatomic modification for living in an aquatic environment, indicate the environment where the animal lived, and the give the time range.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The assignment is evaluated based on the number of fossils used to illustrate whale evolution, and the quality of the student's analysis of each fossil whale species.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Thewissen, G. M., E. M. Williams, E. M., L. J. Roe L. T. and Hussain, S.T. 2001. Skeletons of terrestrial cetaceans and the relationship of whales to artiodactyls. Nature 413: 277-280.

Wong. K. 2002. Mammals That Conquered the Seas. Scientific American 70-80.