The porpoise, Semirostrum ceruttii, lived between 1.6 and 5 million years ago in waters off of what is now the coast of California. Researchers think it used the long, lower part of its snout to hunt for food.
â€œThe extinct porpoise is a bizarre new animal, with the mandible extending well beyond the beak-like snout, which it may have used for probing and â€˜skimmingâ€™ in the substrate,â€ co-author Rachel Racicot of Yale University said in a press release. â€œAlthough this morphology has been recorded in birds and fish, this is the first described mammal with this anatomy.â€
The birds and fish that she refers to are black skimmers (birds) and small fish called half beaks. Both have long, lower jaws that help them to feel around for food at night, or under low-light conditions.
Remains of the porpoise were first found in early rock formations along the California coast in 1990. More recent medical CT scans of the specimen revealed the porpoiseâ€™s unusual anatomy.
In addition to the underbite, it possessed eyes that were tinier than those of todayâ€™s porpoises. The extinct mammal therefore probably had poor eyesight, making its jaw probing all the more important to its survival.
The researchers think the animal was, at least in some ways, similar to todayâ€™s freshwater river dolphins.