Instead of teeth, modern mysticetes bear hair-fringed keratinous baleen plates that permit various bulk-filtering predation techniques (from subsurface skimming to lateral benthic suction and engulfment) devoted to various target prey (from small invertebrates to schooling fish). Current knowledge about the feeding ecology of extant cetaceans is revealed by stomach content analyses and observations of behavior. Unfortunately, no fossil stomach contents of ancient mysticetes have been described so far; the investigation of the diet of fossil baleen whales, including the Neogene family Cetotheriidae, remains thus largely speculative. We report on an aggregate of fossil fish remains found within a mysticete skeleton belonging to an undescribed late Miocene (Tortonian) cetotheriid from the Pisco Formation (Peru). Micro-computed tomography allowed us to interpret it as the fossilized content of the forestomach of the host whale and to identify the prey as belonging to the extant clupeiform genus Sardinops. Our discovery represents the first direct evidence of piscivory in an ancient edentulous mysticete. Since among modern mysticetes only Balaenopteridae are known to ordinarily consume fish, this fossil record may indicate that part of the cetotheriids experimented some degree of balaenopterid-like engulfment feeding. Moreover, this report corresponds to one of the geologically oldest records of Sardinops worldwide, occurring near the Tortonian peak of oceanic primary productivity and cooling phase. Therefore, our discovery evokes a link between the rise of Cetotheriidae; the setup of modern coastal upwelling systems; and the radiation of epipelagic, small-sized, schooling clupeiform fish in such highly productive environments.
Keywords: Cetotheriidae; Fossil stomach content; Micro-CT; Miocene; Mysticeti; Sardinops.