Temporal range: Early Eocene–present
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Clade: Cetancodontamorpha
Suborder: Whippomorpha
Waddell et al. 1999

Whippomorpha or Cetancodonta is a group of animals that contains all living cetaceans (whales, dolphins, etc.) and hippopotamuses, as well as their extinct relatives, i.e. Entelodonts and Andrewsarchus.[1] All Whippomorphs are descendants of the last common ancestor of Hippopotamus amphibius and Tursiops truncatus. This makes it a crown group.[2] Whippomorpha is a suborder within the order Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates). The placement of Whippomorpha within Artiodactyla is a matter of some contention, as hippopotamuses were previously considered to be more closely related to Suidae (pigs) and Tayassuidae (peccaries).[3][4] Most contemporary scientific phylogenetic and morphological research studies link hippopotamuses with cetaceans, and genetic evidence has overwhelmingly supported an evolutionary relationship between Hippopotamidae and Cetacea.[5] Modern Whippomorphs all share a number of behavioural and physiological traits; such as a dense layer of subcutaneous fat and largely hairless bodies. They exhibit amphibious and aquatic behaviors and possess similar auditory structures.


The name Whippomorpha is a combination of English (wh[ale] + hippo[potamus]) and Greek (μορφή, morphē = form).[2] Some attempts have made to rename the suborder Cetancodonta, due to the misleading utilization of the suffix -morpha for a crown group,[6] as well as the risk of confusion with the clade Hippomorpha (which consists of equid perissodactyls);[7] however Whippomorpha maintains precedence.[7]



Modern Whippomorphs are widely distributed. Cetaceans can be found in almost all of the world's marine habitats, and some species, like the blue whale and humpback whale, have migratory ranges that comprise nearly the entire ocean. These whales typically migrate on a seasonal basis, moving to warmer waters to give birth and raise young before travelling to cooler waters with more optimal feeding grounds.[8] Other cetacean species have smaller ranges that are concentrated around either tropical or subtropical waters. Some cetaceans live exclusively within a single marine body, such as the narwhal, whose range is limited to the Arctic Ocean.[9]

By comparison, modern hippopotamuses are confined entirely to the African continent. Despite once being widespread across Europe and North Africa, hippos are now considered vulnerable and are limited to the lakes, rivers and wetlands of southern Africa.[10]


A hippopotamus surfacing to breathe
A hippopotamus surfacing to breathe

Both whales and hippos must surface in order to breathe. This can pose problems for sleeping Whippomorphs. Cetaceans overcome this problem by exhibiting unihemispheric sleep, meaning they rest one side of their brain at a time, allowing them to swim and surface during rest periods.[11] Hippopotamuses surface to breathe every three to five minutes. This process is partially subconscious, allowing hippopotamuses to surface and breathe whilst sleeping.[12] Both whales and hippos exhibit symbiotic relationships with smaller fish, which they use as cleaning stations, allowing the smaller organisms to feed on parasites that enter the creature's mouth.[13]

Hippos are herbivores, normally their diet consists entirely of short grasses that they graze on. Some hippos have been observed consuming animals such as zebra and even other hippo carcasses.[14][15] A hippo normally spends up to five hours a day grazing. They normally feed only on land, though occasional consumption of aquatic vegetation has been observed.[12] By contrast, cetaceans are all carnivores, feeding on fish and marine invertebrates, with some individual species feeding on larger mammals and birds (such as seals and penguins).[16]


All whippomorphs are placental mammals, meaning that embryos are fed by the placenta, which draws nutrients from the mother's body. They are k-selected organisms, producing a limited number of offspring, but with a high rate of survival.[17]

A humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) with her calf.
A humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) with her calf.

Hippos reach sexual maturity at six years of age and have a gestation period of approximately eight months. Mating typically occurs in the water. Female hippopotamuses isolate themselves for two weeks prior to giving birth. The birthing process also takes place underwater, meaning calves must swim to the surface in order to breathe for the first time. Hippopotamus calves suckle on land.[18]

Cetaceans generally reach sexual maturity around 10 years of age, and have a gestation period of around 12 months. Cetaceans give birth to well-developed calves, like hippopotamuses. When suckling, the mother splashes milk into the calves' mouth, as they have no lips.[16]

Taxonomy and phylogeny

Whippomorpha is a suborder located within the Order Artiodactyla, and the clade Cetancodontamorpha. It contains the clades Hippopotamoidea (ancestors of hippopotamuses) and Cetaceamorpha (ancestors of whales and dolphins). Whippomorpha is considered a sister clade to Ruminantia (which contains cattle, sheep and deer), as well as the extinct Raeollidae.[5][19] Hippopotamoidea was formerly included to Suiformes with Suidae (pigs) and Tayassuidae (peccaries).[20]

Most of the evidence supporting the Whippomorpha clade is based on molecular or genetic analysis. Early support for the existence of a Cetacea/Hippopotamidae clade originated from analysis of the molecular composition of a blood-clotting protein γ-fibrinogen taken from whales and hippopotamuses.[21] Later studies obtained findings that indicated almost 11,000 orthologous genes between cetaceans and hippopotamuses, in addition to numerous positive indicators of a shared evolutionary history between cetaceans and hippopotamuses.[5] Furthermore, some genetic sequences have been found in both whales and hippopotamuses that are not present in the genomes of other mammals.[22] This would indicate that these groups share ancestry.

Whippomorpha's placement within Artiodactyla can be represented in the following cladogram:[3][23][24][25][26]


Tylopoda (camels)

Cladogram of Cetacea within Artiodactyla (Camelus bactrianus).png


  Suina (pigs)

Recherches pour servir à l


 Ruminantia (ruminants)

Walia ibex illustration white background.png


 Hippopotamidae (hippopotamuses)

Voyage en Abyssinie Plate 2 (white background).jpg

 Cetacea (whales)

Bowhead-Whale1 (16273933365).jpg


Cladogram showing Whippomorpha within Artiodactylamorpha:  Whippomorpha consists of the clades labeled Hippopotamoidea and Cetaceamorpha.
Cladogram showing Whippomorpha within Artiodactylamorpha: Whippomorpha consists of the clades labeled Hippopotamoidea and Cetaceamorpha.

It is unknown whether the last common ancestor of whales and hippos led an aquatic, semiaquatic/amphibious, or terrestrial lifestyle. Therefore, it is a matter of contention whether the aquatic traits of both hippopotamuses and cetaceans are linked or the product of convergent evolution. Recent findings seem to indicate that the latter is more likely.[5]

Whippomorpha diverged from other Cetartiodactyls approximately 59 Myr, whilst whales diverged from hippos approximately 55 Myr.[5] The first branch contained ancestors of Cetacea; semi-aquatic protowhales such as Pakicetus in the group Archaeoceti, which developed into the exclusively aquatic ancestors of modern cetaceans.[27]

One evolutionarily significant whale ancestor was the raoellid Indohyus, which was a Himalayas-dwelling, digitgrade omnivore roughly the size of a raccoon. It was not an adept swimmer, although it was thought to have spent considerable periods of time wading in shallow water. This would have been assisted by its heavy bones, providing stability. Indohyus was likely to have a diet at least partially based on aquatic foraging. Evidence for this includes the fact that the tooth enamel of Indohyus was considerably less worn than would be expected for an animal with an exclusively terrestrial diet.[19] One of the most crucial facets of the discovery of Indohyus was the presence of a thickened auditory bulla, otherwise known as an involucrum. This discovery was significant as the involucrum was a morphology thought previously to be exclusive to cetaceans, a synapomorphy. This feature irrefutably linked cetaceans to raoellids.[19]

An interpretation of Pakicetus.
An interpretation of Pakicetus.

It is thought that early whales such as Nalacetus and Pakicetus were restricted to freshwater environments, as modern hippopotamuses are.[27] The later Ambulocetus, was likely to have lived a much more aquatic lifestyle, with shorter legs and paddle-like hands and feet. It also likely represented a transitional organism from freshwater to seawater, as the isotopic analysis of the bones and teeth of Ambulocetus indicate that it inhabited estuaries.[28]

The second branch of Whippomorpha is thought to have developed into the Anthracotheriidae family, who were the putative ancestors of modern hippopotamuses. The sediments in which anthracotheriid fossils have been fossilized indicate that they were at least partially amphibious, whilst the jaw structure of fossils of select species, particularly Anthracotherium, seem to indicate that it was an ancestral form of modern hippopotamuses.[19]

These findings somewhat explain the once confusing paleontological age gap that existed as a major piece of evidence against an evolutionary link between Hippopotamidae and Cetacea. Previously, the oldest known cetacean fossils were approximately 50 Myr, while the earliest known hippopotamus fossils were around 15 Myr.[29] The sum of the fossil knowledge indicates that whales and hippopotamuses developed amphibious and aquatic traits independently from one another, but that the features developed by their shared ancestors created pathways to the development of said adaptations.[30] Thus the large difference in time between the discovery of cetacean and hippopotamid fossils is explained by the fact that hippos simply developed their semi-aquatic adaptations at a much later time than their cetacean cousins.[5]


Top: Skeleton of an adult and calf hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), Bottom: A blue whale calf (Balaenoptera musculus)
Top: Skeleton of an adult and calf hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), Bottom: A blue whale calf (Balaenoptera musculus)

All members of the suborder Whippomorpha share some anatomical similarities. Hippopotamus stomachs are multi-chambered as with all ruminants, however they do not regurgitate food. Instead, the hippopotamus stomach contains two preliminary chambers, which acts similarly to a compost bin, allowing foodstuffs to ferment before entering the animal's main stomach. All whale species possess similar stomach structures. Additionally, both animals bear single-lobed lungs (similar to other aquatic mammals), which allow to be filled with air more rapidly. This is a critical adaptation for both amphibious and aquatic organisms, as it reduces the frequency of dangerous trips to the water surface, where such organisms are more vulnerable to predation.[31]

Hippos’ bodies contain a layer of dense fat, reminiscent of a whales’ blubber, and situated between skin and muscle. Hippos and whales both possess thick bones, which aid in rapid descent into water, have minimal hair (to aid in hydrodynamics)[30] and a lack of sweat glands.[32] Webbing is also present between the toes of hippopotamuses; a more land-suitable version of a whale's flippers.[30] Hippos possess unique hind-limb musculature that provides them with powerful propulsion capabilities, rather than fine-tuned control. These features are characteristic of other ungulates.[33]

There is strong resemblance between the dentition of primitive cetaceans and primitive ungulates, which seemingly cements the position of Cetacea within Artiodactyla.[21] In addition, both Cetaceans and Artiodactyls possess two distinct components in their ears, the involucrum and sigmoid process. Similar features are considered responsible for the ability of cetaceans to hear underwater. The skeletons of prehistoric whales also contain uniquely shaped ankle bones, including a double-pulley system found only in even-toed ungulates and crucially not present in odd-toed ungulates.[22]

Both hippos and whales have an unusually large and strangely-shaped larynx, which enables the booming calls of whales underwater and the unique noises produced by hippos to communicate while submerged.[31]

Relationship with humans

Whippomorphs have always had complex cultural and social relationships with humans. Modern hippopotamuses have a reputation for extreme aggression. Hippos are incredibly territorial and protective of their young, and are the deadliest mammal in Africa, killing between two and three thousand people a year.[10] Despite this, hippos remain popular zoo animals. Hippos were hunted by ancient humans for food and sport. In Ancient Egypt, hippos were recognized as dangerous inhabitants of the river Nile, and a red hippo was the symbol of the god Set. The biblical Behemoth is thought to be based on or inspired by the hippo.

Modern hippopotamuses face a number of threats from humans. Common hippopotamuses are classed as vulnerable, and are subject to habitat destruction as a result of agriculture, water management, climate change and development of housing and urban areas.[34] Pygmy hippopotamuses are considered endangered, with less than three thousand individuals in the wild. The few surviving pygmy hippopotamuses occupy a much smaller habitat area in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. They face threats from mining and quarrying, hunting and logging.[35]

Two monsters of biblical legend: Behemoth (top); thought to be inspired by the hippopotamus, and Leviathan (bottom); thought to be inspired by whales.
Two monsters of biblical legend: Behemoth (top); thought to be inspired by the hippopotamus, and Leviathan (bottom); thought to be inspired by whales.

Cetaceans have also had an extensive history with humans. The primary threats to modern cetaceans are direct danger (from whaling), and indirect damage to whale habitats (through pollution and overfishing). Commercial shipping, petroleum drilling and coastal development can disrupt cetacean habitats. Thousands of cetaceans are affected by bycatching every year.[36] Some evidence also exists that human-generated sound may account for increases in the rate of cetacean strandings.[37]

Whales were inspirations for many mythical creatures, including the Leviathan, which was interestingly associated with the Behemoth. Dolphins are mentioned in historical literature far more frequently than whales. Stories of dolphins typically include them playing a role in helping shipwrecked sailors or guiding lost ships. In the 20th Century, perceptions of whales changed, and now tourism for the purposes of whale-watching has become very popular. Cetaceans are revered for their immense size, intelligent and playful dispositions, displays of speed in water, and contributions to scientific research.

Whales have been kept in captivity by humans for research and entertainment for centuries. Particularly popular are killer whales. Conservation and animal rights organizations have been vehemently opposed to the captivity of these cetaceans. It is common for captive killer whales to display aggression towards other whales and their trainers. Bottlenose dolphins are also popular, due to their friendly behavior. They also fare better in captivity than other cetaceans.


  1. ^ Joeckel, R. M. (1990). "A functional interpretation of the masticatory system and paleoecology of entelodonts". Paleobiology. 16 (4): 459–482. doi:10.1017/S0094837300010198. S2CID 88949308.
  2. ^ a b Waddell, P. J.; Okada, N.; Hasegawa, M. (1999). "Towards resolving the interordinal relationships of placental mammals". Systematic Biology. 48 (1): 1–5. doi:10.1093/sysbio/48.1.1. JSTOR 2585262. PMID 12078634.
  3. ^ a b Beck, Robin M.D.; Bininda-Emonds, Olaf R.P.; Cardillo, Marcel; Liu, Fu-Guo; Purvis, Andy (2006). "A higher-level MRP supertree of placental mammals". BMC Evolutionary Biology. 6: 93. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-6-93. PMC 1654192. PMID 17101039.
  4. ^ Black, Riley. "How Did Whales Evolve?". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2020-11-04.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Tsagkogeorga, Georgia; McGowen, Michael R.; Davies, Kalina T. J.; Jarman, Simon; Polanowski, Andrea; Bertelsen, Mads F.; Rossiter, Stephen J. (September 2015). "A phylogenomic analysis of the role and timing of molecular adaptation in the aquatic transition of cetartiodactyl mammals". Royal Society Open Science. 2 (9): 150156. Bibcode:2015RSOS....250156T. doi:10.1098/rsos.150156. ISSN 2054-5703. PMC 4593674. PMID 26473040.
  6. ^ Spaulding, Michelle; O'Leary, Maureen A.; Gatesy, John (2009-09-23). "Relationships of Cetacea (Artiodactyla) among mammals: increased taxon sampling alters interpretations of key fossils and character evolution". PLOS ONE. 4 (9): e7062. Bibcode:2009PLoSO...4.7062S. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007062. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 2740860. PMID 19774069.
  7. ^ a b Asher, Robert J; Helgen, Kristofer M (2010-04-20). "Nomenclature and placental mammal phylogeny". BMC Evolutionary Biology. 10: 102. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-102. ISSN 1471-2148. PMC 2865478. PMID 20406454.
  8. ^ "Whale Habitat - Whale Facts and Information". Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  9. ^ "Narwhal - Facts, Pictures, Habitat, Behavior, Appearance". animalsadda.com. Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  10. ^ a b "Hippopotamus Facts and Information!". Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  11. ^ van Aalderink, Eline (2020-10-22). "Whales sleep with half their brain to avoid drowning". Whale Scientists. Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  12. ^ a b Strauss, Bob. "Discover 10 Essential Hippopotamus Facts". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  13. ^ Jirik, Kate. "LibGuides: Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) & Pygmy Hippopotamus (Choerpsis liberiensis) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology". ielc.libguides.com. Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  14. ^ Davies, Ella. "The truth about hippos: herbivore or cannibal?". www.bbc.com. Retrieved 2021-02-28.
  15. ^ Dudley, Joseph P.; Hang'Ombe, Bernard Mudenda; Leendertz, Fabian H.; Dorward, Leejiah J.; Castro, Julio de; Subalusky, Amanda L.; Clauss, Marcus (2016). "Carnivory in the common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius: implications for the ecology and epidemiology of anthrax in African landscapes". Mammal Review. 46 (3): 191–203. doi:10.1111/mam.12056. ISSN 1365-2907.
  16. ^ a b "cetacean | Life Span, Evolution, & Characteristics". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  17. ^ "What Is A Placental Mammal?". WorldAtlas. 10 April 2018. Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  18. ^ "Hippopotamus - Reproduction". science.jrank.org. Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  19. ^ a b c d Thewissen, J. G. M.; Cooper, Lisa Noelle; Clementz, Mark T.; Bajpai, Sunil; Tiwari, B. N. (December 2007). "Whales originated from aquatic artiodactyls in the Eocene epoch of India". Nature. 450 (7173): 1190–1194. Bibcode:2007Natur.450.1190T. doi:10.1038/nature06343. ISSN 1476-4687. PMID 18097400. S2CID 4416444.
  20. ^ Geisler, Jonathan H.; Uhen, Mark D. (2005-06-01). "Phylogenetic Relationships of Extinct Cetartiodactyls: Results of Simultaneous Analyses of Molecular, Morphological, and Stratigraphic Data". Journal of Mammalian Evolution. 12 (1): 145–160. doi:10.1007/s10914-005-4963-8. ISSN 1573-7055. S2CID 34683201.
  21. ^ a b Gatesy, J. (May 1997). "More DNA support for a Cetacea/Hippopotamidae clade: the blood-clotting protein gene gamma-fibrinogen". Molecular Biology and Evolution. 14 (5): 537–543. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.molbev.a025790. ISSN 0737-4038. PMID 9159931.
  22. ^ a b "Hippos and Whales: Unlikely Cousins". Royal Ontario Museum. Retrieved 2020-11-04.
  23. ^ O'Leary, M.A.; Bloch, J.I.; Flynn, J.J.; Gaudin, T.J.; Giallombardo, A.; Giannini, N.P.; Goldberg, S.L.; Kraatz, B.P.; Luo, Z.-X.; Meng, J.; Ni, X.; Novacek, M.J.; Perini, F.A.; Randall, Z.S.; Rougier, G.W.; Sargis, E.J.; Silcox, M.T.; Simmons, N.B.; Spaulding, M.; Velazco, P.M.; Weksler, M.; Wible, J.R.; Cirranello, A.L. (2013). "The Placental Mammal Ancestor and the Post-K-Pg Radiation of Placentals". Science. 339 (6120): 662–667. Bibcode:2013Sci...339..662O. doi:10.1126/science.1229237. hdl:11336/7302. PMID 23393258. S2CID 206544776.
  24. ^ Song, S.; Liu, L.; Edwards, S.V.; Wu, S. (2012). "Resolving conflict in eutherian mammal phylogeny using phylogenomics and the multispecies coalescent model". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (37): 14942–14947. Bibcode:2012PNAS..10914942S. doi:10.1073/pnas.1211733109. PMC 3443116. PMID 22930817.
  25. ^ dos Reis, M.; Inoue, J.; Hasegawa, M.; Asher, R.J.; Donoghue, P.C.J.; Yang, Z. (2012). "Phylogenomic datasets provide both precision and accuracy in estimating the timescale of placental mammal phylogeny". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 279 (1742): 3491–3500. doi:10.1098/rspb.2012.0683. PMC 3396900. PMID 22628470.
  26. ^ Upham, N.S.; Esselstyn, J.A.; Jetz, W. (2019). "Inferring the mammal tree: Species-level sets of phylogenies for questions in ecology, evolution, and conservation". PLOS Biology. 17 (12): e3000494. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.3000494. PMC 6892540. PMID 31800571.(see e.g. Fig S10)
  27. ^ a b Boisserie, Jean-Renaud; Lihoreau, Fabrice; Brunet, Michel (2005-02-01). "The position of Hippopotamidae within Cetartiodactyla". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 102 (5): 1537–1541. Bibcode:2005PNAS..102.1537B. doi:10.1073/pnas.0409518102. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 547867. PMID 15677331.
  28. ^ "The evolution of whales". Understanding Evolution. Retrieved 14 October 2020.
  29. ^ "Fossil reveals hippos related to whales". www.abc.net.au. AFP. 2015-02-25. Retrieved 2020-11-04.
  30. ^ a b c "A Tale of Two Entities: Whales and Hippos | National Center for Science Education". ncse.ngo. Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  31. ^ a b twowheelednomad (2017-07-22). "Are Whales Like Hippos?". Juneau Whale Watching Tours and Excursions - Juneau, AK. Retrieved 2020-11-04.
  32. ^ "Relationship Between the Hippopotamus & the Whale". animals.mom.com. Retrieved 2020-11-04.
  33. ^ Fisher, Rebecca E.; Scott, Kathleen M.; Adrian, Brent (2010). "Hind limb myology of the common hippopotamus, Hippopotamus amphibius (Artiodactyla: Hippopotamidae)". Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. 158 (3): 661–682. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.2009.00558.x. ISSN 1096-3642.
  34. ^ Lewison, Rebecca; Pluháček, Jan (2016-06-16). "IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Hippopotamus amphibius". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 2020-11-20.
  35. ^ Ransom, Chris; Robinson, Philip; Collen, Ben (2015-02-23). "IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Choeropsis liberiensis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 2020-11-20.
  36. ^ Government of Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (2018-08-07). "Researching human impacts on marine mammals". www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca. Retrieved 2020-11-20.
  37. ^ Hildebrand, John A. (2012). "Marine mammals and anthropogenic sound". Proceedings of the Seventh ACM International Conference on Underwater Networks and Systems - WUWNet '12. New York, New York, USA: ACM Press: 1. doi:10.1145/2398936.2398949. ISBN 978-1-4503-1773-3. S2CID 30035540.