Cetartiodactylacetaceans and artiodactyls


Cetartiodactyla is a group comprised of two orders of mammals that are superficially quite different and that, until recently, were recognized as two separate monophyletic clades. These orders are Artiodactyla, even-toed ungulates, including animals such as cows (Bovidae), camels (Camelidae), and deer (Cervidae), and Cetacea, a group of mammals that are highly specialized for an aquatic lifestyle, including baleen whales and toothed whales. Recent molecular evidence suggests that Cetacea evolved from artiodactyl ancestors, making Artiodactyla non-monophyletic unless Cetacea is included. Experts suggest the monophyletic clade representing artiodactyls and cetaceans be called Cetartiodactyla. (Boisserie, et al., 2005; Gatesy, et al., 1996; Gatesy, et al., 1999; Gatesy, 1997; Graur and Higgins, 1994; Milinkovitch and Thewissan, 1997; Montgelard, et al., 1997; Naylor and Adams, 2001; O'Leary and Geisler, 1999; Shimamura, et al., 1997; Thewissen, et al., 2001)

Geographic Range

Cetartiodactyls are found the world over, from north of the Arctic Circle to the waters surrounding Antarctica. Artiodactyls are native to all continents except Antarctica and Australia, and some artiodactyls are domesticated and have been introduced around the world by humans. Cetaceans inhabit all of the world's oceans and some freshwater lakes and rivers in South America, North America, and Asia. (Nowak, 1999; Rice, 1984; Simpson, 1984)


Most artiodactyls live entirely on land and reside in a range of terrestrial habitats, such as savannah, forest, mountains, desert, and farmland. One artiodactyl family, Hippopotamidae, is semi-aquatic and can be found in freshwater lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers. Cetaceans, on the other hand, are exclusively aquatic and inhabit the world's oceans, as well as some freshwater rivers and streams. (Nowak, 1999; Rice, 1984; Simpson, 1984)

Physical Description

Because cetaceans are so highly specialized for their aquatic lifestyle, they bear little resemblance to their artiodactyl ancestors. They have nearly hairless, fusiform bodies. They lack hind limbs except for tiny internal pelvic vestiges, and the forelimbs are modified into streamlined flippers. The tail bears a flattened fluke. In addition, cetacean skulls are highly modified so that the nares are located on the top of the head. On the other hand, most artiodactyls are specialized for cursorial locomotion, with long, hoofed limbs, and they lack the extreme aquatic specializations found in cetaceans. Most cetartiodactyls are relatively large animals, but there is an enormous range of body sizes in this group. Blue whales, Balaenoptera musculus, are the largest animals on earth, growing over 27 meters in length and weighing over 190,000 kg, whereas the smallest artiodactyl, the lesser mouse deer (Tragulus javanicus), is just 45 cm long and weighs 2 kg. Many species of cetartiodactyls exhibit sexual dimorphism, with males larger than females or vice versa. Also, male artiodactyls often bear antlers or large horns, and some male cetartiodactyls (narwhals (Monodon monoceros), tragulids, and suids) bear large tusks. (Nowak, 1999; Rice, 1984; Simpson, 1984)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • female larger
  • male larger
  • ornamentation


Cetartiodactyls are monogamous, polyandrous, polygynandrous, or polygynous. Polygyny, in which social groupings consist of adult females and their young and one or a few adult males, is a common cetartiodactyl strategy. It occurs in species as different as elk (Cervus elaphus) and killer whales (Orcinus orca). Sexual dimorphism in ornamentation (such as antlers) and body size indicates intense male-male competition for mates in many species. (Nowak, 1999; Rice, 1984; Simpson, 1984)

In general, cetartiodactyls are not highly prolific, giving birth to just one or two young every one or two years. However, some members of the family Suidae may have 12 or more young at a time. Breeding may be either seasonal or year-round. At least one species, the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) regularly experiences a postpartum estrus. Gestation periods are as short as four months in small artiodactyls to as long as 17 months in Baird's beaked whales (Berardius bairdii), and youngsters are weaned between 2 1/2 and 24 months of age. Age at sexual maturity varies widely as well, from 5 months to more than 10 years. (Nowak, 1999; Rice, 1984; Simpson, 1984)

Most cetartiodactyls have precocial young, as it is necessary for them to be able to walk or swim from the moment of birth. Young stay with their mothers for at least four months. In some species, such as bottlenosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), young remain with their mothers for up to five years, long after they are weaned. Males may care for their offspring indirectly by defending family groups, but they generally do not help females raise their young. (Nowak, 1999; Rice, 1984; Simpson, 1984)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents
  • extended period of juvenile learning
  • maternal position in the dominance hierarchy affects status of young


Cetartiodactyls are relatively long-lived mammals. Most species live for at least a decade in the wild, and captivity usually prolongs life expectancy by several years. Cetaceans are especially long-lived; 116-year-old fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) have been reported from the wild and bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) may live up to 200 years. (Carey and Judge, 2002; George, et al., 1999)


Most cetartiodactyls are highly social animals. Some live in large herds or pods numbering hundreds or even thousands of individuals. Group living commonly results in the formation of dominance hierarchies among both male and female cetartiodactyls. A few species, such as greater mouse-deer (Tragulus napu) and river dolphins (Platanista) are solitary. Many cetartiodactyl species migrate seasonally or are nomadic, and some bovid species (Bovidae) are territorial. Different species vary in their timing of daily activities: some are diurnal, some are nocturnal, some are crepuscular, and some are active at any time of the day or night. (Nowak, 1999; Rice, 1984; Simpson, 1984)

Communication and Perception

Cetartiodactyls perceive the world through visual, tactile, auditory, and chemical means. Some cetaceans, the Odontoceti, navigate and hunt using echolocation. Terrestrial cetartiodactyls often communicate with scent; many species, such as those in the family Cervidae, have specialized glands for doing so. Communication in cetaceans is accomplished largely by sound, as sound waves travel well in water. Low frequency sounds produced by baleen whales (Mysticeti) may travel for hundreds of kilometers, allowing individuals to communicate with one another over great distances. (Nowak, 1999; Rice, 1984; Simpson, 1984)

Food Habits

As a group, cetartiodactyls consume a wide array of terrestrial and aquatic food items. Most artiodactyls are herbivores, consuming grass, leaves, bark, and other plant parts. Those in the family Suidae are omnivorous, and eat small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates, fruit, bulbs, rhizomes, fungi, carrion, and bird eggs. Cetaceans consume plankton, fish, squid, crustaceans, and aquatic birds and mammals (including other cetaceans). (Nowak, 1999; Rice, 1984; Simpson, 1984)


Artiodactyls are an important food source for many large mammalian carnivores, notably felids, canids, and ursids. Cetaceans, on the other hand, have few natural predators, save other cetaceans (killer whales, Orcinus orca), sharks, and occasionally walruses (Odobenus rosmarus). Group living ("safety in numbers") and camouflage are two defenses often employed by cetartiodactyls against predation. (Nowak, 1999; Rice, 1984; Simpson, 1984)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Cetartiodactyls are primary, secondary, and higher-level consumers, filling roles of predator (most cetaceans) and prey (most artiodactyls). Terrestrial cetartiodactyls are plagued by ectoparasites such as fleas, lice, and bot flies. Cetaceans, though aquatic, are not free from external parasites either, and are host to barnacles, copepods, and whale lice. Both terrestrial and aquatic species host internal parasites as well, such as tapeworms, flukes, and nematodes. Interestingly, birds have evolved commensal relationships with both aquatic and terrestrial cetartiodactyls. Seagulls follow schools of dolphins and consume small fish stirred up by the cetaceans, and cowbirds follow herds of cattle and consume insects stirred up by the hooves of the artiodactyls. Also, some cetartiodactyl species are mutualists with animals that feed on their ectoparasites: topsmelt (Atherinops affinis) consume whale lice that live on the skin of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus), while oxpeckers (Buphagus) remove fleas and other parasites from the skin of various African artiodactyls. (Nowak, 1999; Rice, 1984; Roberts and Janovy, Jr., 2000)

Mutualist Species
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Cetartiodactyls are of immense economic importance to humans. They have been hunted for thousands of years, for food, for sport, and for various body parts. They are important for ecotourism, be it a whale-watching boat off the coast of Maine or a safari on the African savannah. Several artiodactyl species have been domesticated for thousands of years and are used to produce meat, milk, leather and wool, and their dung is used as a fertilizer. Cetaceans are sometimes kept in captivity and taught to perform tricks. Many cetartiodactyls are the focus of research programs that help us to better understand many aspects of evolution, physiology, and behavior. (Nowak, 1999)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • ecotourism
  • research and education
  • produces fertilizer

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Artiodactyls, especially domesticated species, sometimes carry diseases that are transmissible to humans or other domestic animals. Wild artiodactyls sometimes interfere with farming operations by eating crops. (Nowak, 1999)

Conservation Status

Currently, the IUCN classifies 54 cetartiodactyl species as data deficient, 146 as lower risk, 40 as vulnerable, 32 as endangered, 14 as critically endangered, 7 as extinct, and 2 as extinct in the wild. The biggest threats to many terrestrial species are habitat loss and fragmentation and overhunting. Several large cetacean species were hunted nearly to extinction until an international treaty banned commercial whaling in the 1980s. Populations of many large, commercially-valuable whales remain severely depleted. Today, cetaceans face threats associated with global climate change, which could have widespread impacts on their food supply in the near future. (IUCN, 2004)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Allison Poor (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


Arctic Ocean

the body of water between Europe, Asia, and North America which occurs mostly north of the Arctic circle.

Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

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Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal


Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.


active at dawn and dusk


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


The process by which an animal locates itself with respect to other animals and objects by emitting sound waves and sensing the pattern of the reflected sound waves.


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.