ADAPTATION Fresh to Saltwater Environment

How did cetaceans make the transition from land mammals drinking freshwater to cetaceans able to drink seawater? Evidence from isotopic signatures preserved in fossilized teeth helps solve some of the questions.

Seawater has a higher concentration of 18O than freshwater. When three of the oldest known ancient whales were tested for 18O, the ratio was similar to amounts found in modern river dolphins that live in freshwater. The fourth younger Archaeoceti, Indocetus, had higher concentrations of 18O.

This tells us that ancestors of cetaceans had to drink freshwater to survive and could not stray far from coastlines. An example is Ambulocetus, whose skeletal remains are found in saltwater deposits, but who's teeth tell us it drank freshwater. However, within a short period of geologic time (4 million years), ancient cetaceans were able to specialize their kidneys in order to drink saltwater.(Monastersky, 1996)

Modern-day dolphin probably saying, "Here's sea salt in your eye!".