Imagine the largest animal in the world, walking on land! Most of us would think of the age of dinosaurs but not about the modern-day giant—the whales. In a spectacular find, Egyptian palaeontologists have recently unearthed a 43-million-year-old fossil of a four-legged whale that previously walked on land and swam in the vast oceans.
An expedition led by Mohamed Sameh of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency the fossil was discovered back in 2008 from middle Eocene rocks in the Fayum Depression in Egypt’s the Western Desert—an area previously submerged by the sea. A team of Egyptian scientists recently studied the fossil remains to find that they belonged to a member of protocetidae—an extinct group of species similar to whales that lived during the Eocene epoch between 56 million and 33.9 million years ago.
The species had a body length of around 10 feet and a mass of roughly 600 kg. This fearsome creature was said to have a jackal-like head and powerful jaws. The researcher’s highlight that the skull and mandible’s unique traits suggest more effective oral mechanical processing than the ordinary protocetids. This probably allowed for a robust raptorial eating style which would have made it a top predator in its food chain at the time, likening it to today’s killer whale.
The scientists named the newly-uncovered whale species Phiomicetus Anubis, after Anubis, the Egyptian god of mummification and the afterlife, because this whale would’ve been nothing less than a death warrant for the creatures it fed on.
Because of their amphibious nature, protocetids represent a unique stage in whale history that is still mostly unknown to scientists. An elongated temporal fossa, or shallow depression on the side of the skull, and a change in the positioning of the pterygoid bones distinguish Phiomicetus Anubis from other protocetids.
According to the study, the evolution of whales could have occurred at a breakneck speed millions of years ago, with predecessors evolving from “deer-like” herbivores on land into predatory marine mammals within a ten-million-year timeframe.
This discovery has given us an insight into the biogeography and feeding ecology of early whales. The authors believe that this study also highlights the role of African waters in the evolution of whales during the Eocene era.
This study has been published in The Royal Society and can be accessed here.