While it’s rather difficult to picture whales outside their vast marine habitats, the early ancestors of these gigantic creatures were actually terrestrial — and a recent discovery of new four-legged whale species brings to light more exciting evidence about the animals’ evolution from land to sea.
Scientists discovered the ancient whale in Egypt’s West Desert and named it Phiomicetus anubis because of the resemblance of the animal’s skull to that of the jackal-headed Egyptian god of death Anubis.
“Phiomicetus anubis is a key new whale species, and a critical discovery for Egyptian and African paleontology,” study lead author Abdullah Gohar of the Mansoura University Vertebrate Palaeontology Centre (MUVP) told Reuters.
According to the researchers behind the study, it took whales about 10 million years to evolve from deer-like, land-dwelling herbivores to the marine carnivores we know today. Along the way, there were the Protocetidae, amphibious whales that lived during the Eocene Epoch, about 56 to 33.9 million years ago. According to fossilized evidence, these whales looked very different from today’s aquatic giants.
Measuring about 10 feet in length and weighing around 1,300 pounds, the newly discovered whale species is thought to be a medium-sized example of the Protocetidae group. It lived around 43 million years ago.
While other four-legged whales have been previously discovered, the new find is considered the earliest semi-aquatic whale discovered in Africa to date, and represents an important contribution to our understanding of how these mammals evolved.
Image source: Dr Robert W. Boessenecker
Source study: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: A new protocetid whale offers clues to biogeography and feeding ecology in early cetacean evolution