Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 27.djvu/219

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
205
WHALES, PAST AND PRESENT.

of whales equaling in size those that are now to be met with in the ocean. The size of whales, as of all other things whose most striking attribute is magnitude, has been greatly exaggerated; but, when reduced to the limits of sober fact, the Greenland right whale of fifty feet long, the sperm whale of sixty, and the great northern rorqual (Balœnoptera Sibbaldii)

PSM V27 D219 Narwhal.jpg
Fig. 7. — Narwhal.

of eighty, exceed all other organic structures known, past or present. Instead of living in an age of degeneracy of physical growth, we are in an age of giants, but it may be at the end of that age. For countless ages impulses from within and the forces of circumstances from without have been gradually shaping the whales into their present wonderful form and

gigantic size, but the very perfection of their structure and their magnitude combined, the rich supply of oil protecting their internal parts from cold, the beautiful apparatus of whalebone by which their nutrition is provided for, have been fatal gifts, which, under the sudden revolution produced on the surface of the globe by the development of the wants and arts of civilized man, can not but lead in a few years to their extinction.

Let us return to the question with which we started, "What was the probable origin of whales?" The evidence is absolutely conclusive that they were not originally aquatic in habit, but are derived from terrestrial mammals of fairly high organization, belonging to the placental division of the class — animals in which a hairy covering was developed, and with sense-organs, especially that of smell, adapted for living on land; animals, moreover, with four completely developed pairs of limbs on the type of the higher vertebrata, and not of that of fishes.

One of the methods by which a land mammal may have been changed into an aquatic one is clearly shown in the stages which still survive among the carnivora. The seals are obviously modifications of the land carnivora, the Otaria, or sea-lions and sea-bears, being curiously intermediate. Many naturalists have been tempted to think that the whales represent a still further stage of the same kind of modification. But there is to my mind a fatal objection to this view. The seal, of course, has much in common with the whale, inasmuch as it is a mammal adapted for an aquatic life, but it has been converted to its general fish-like form by the peculiar development of its hind-limbs into instruments of propulsion through the water; for, though