Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Whale Evolution

A Deep Time Lineages Activity

Activity Description


Students will use shared characteristics to identify the closest living relatives among a set of animals. Then they use fossils to investigate whale lineage from the last common ancestor of whales and deer to today.

  • Designed for group of up to 5 students each
  • Grades 3-8 or Ages 8-14
  • Activity should take 30-40 minutes to complete


In this two-part activity, students explore the idea of common ancestry by making hypotheses about relatedness among whales, deer, tigers, seals, and sharks. They use an evolutionary tree to keep track of their hypotheses and observations about these animals. Upon learning that whales and deer are closely related, they move to Part 2, in which they compare traits visible in modern and fossil skeletons to understand more about whale ancestry. Students split into two paleontology roles — the lead researcher and the field paleontologists. They work together to build a whale evolutionary tree that tracks their observations and hypotheses about when and how shared derived traits evolved. Then they use the tree to pose and answer questions about the nature of change over time, looking particularly at how terrestrial mammals evolved to live in marine habitats.

In the course of doing this activity, students will:

  • Make observations of, describe, and compare the traits of extinct and extant whale relatives
  • Use an evolutionary tree to make hypotheses about evolutionary relationships 
  • Use specific characteristics of skulls and skeletons to work out how closely the animals are related
  • Use the tree to answer questions about when different traits emerged along the whale/artiodactyl lineage 
  • Discuss, explain, and debate with family or classroom members to make hypotheses, and make decisions while building the tree 
  • Feel like they are doing science

Science Standards (NGSS)

Life Science

3rd Grade

  • 3-LS4-1: Analyze and interpret data from fossils to provide evidence of the organisms and the environments in which they lived long ago.
  • 3-LS4-3: Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.

4th Grade

  • 4-LS1-1 Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.

Grades 6-8

  • MS-LS4-1 Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past.


Download Materials to Use in Your Classroom

You can print and play this activity using a basic color printer and a laminator, or you can choose to produce something a bit more durable and high fidelity with off-the shelf purchases, 3D printer, and custom print shop. Find instructions for each option below.

We advise that no more than 5 students engage in the activity at a time. Multiple copies may be necessary to have an entire classroom divide into groups that do the activity at the same time.

  • Printable Magnet Paper - 8.5x11 and 11x17
  • Magnetic tabletop easel
  • 3D Printer



Download the very large, high-resolution files from this Dropbox folder. Here is a list of the files:

  • Tree Board 1 PDF: Send to printer
  • Tree Board 2 PDF: Send to printer
  • Hypothesis Board PDF: Send to printer
  • Animal Skull Photos PDF: Print, cut out and laminate
  • Tokens PDF: Send to printer, or print, cut and tape to cardboard or foam core
  • Whale Relative Cards PDF: Print, cut out and laminate

You can also use toy animals to enhance the activity. 

  • Animal Toys: Available for purchase online.


3D Scans:

Whale Relative Fossil Skull and Forelimb 3D scans:

Resource Type
Hands-On Activities
Grade Level
3-5, 6-8
Learning Standards
Next Generation Science Standards
Life Science, Paleontology