Despite the extensive fossil record of mammals, it is often difficult to use fossil data to reconstruct the lifestyles and habitats of extinct species. The fact that some species spent all or part of their time underwater, respectively similar to modern-day whales and seals, further complicates this.
Konami Ando and Shin-chi Fujiwara, researchers at Nagoya University, addressed this by developing a new index for predicting if a species lived its entire life in the water. The index is based on how the ribs must be relatively strong for an animal to walk or crawl over land, but not for it to swim. After establishing the index via measurements of living terrestrial, semiaquatic, and exclusively aquatic species, Ando and Fujiwara used it to predict that some extinct species could not have supported themselves on land.
Although mammals originally evolved as terrestrial organisms, cladistics shows that some returned to aquatic lives, and that this sometimes occurred independently. Examples include whales, dolphins, and manatees, which never leave the water, and seals and hippopotamuses, which split time between land and water. Studies of fossils of extinct species also suggest some species spent all or some of their time in the water. However, inability to use fossil records alone to determine a species' lifestyle has made this hard to confirm.
In their study, reported in the Journal of Anatomy, Ando and Fujiwara analyzed rib cages and their resistance to vertical compression in a range of mammalian species. This important factor represents an animal's ability to support its body weight against gravity while walking or crawling; a trait aquatic organisms do not need. The researchers investigated 26 modern-day terrestrial, semiaquatic, and exclusively aquatic species, including the killer whale, polar bear, dugong, giraffe, and hippopotamus. They used their data to establish an index for differentiating between groups with different habitats. They then applied the index to four extinct mammalian species, all of which had retained their four limbs but showed signs of having been partially or completely aquatic, to shed light on their potential lifestyles.