Egyptian scientists say that the fossil of a four-legged prehistoric whale, which was discovered over a decade ago in the country’s western desert, is of a previously unknown species. The creature, an ancestor of modern whales, is believed to have lived 43 million years ago.
The prehistoric whale, known as semi-aquatic because it lived both on land and at sea, exhibited the characteristics of a skilled hunter, the team’s leading paleontologist, Hesham Sallam, told the Associated Press – features that make it stand out among other whale fossils.
The fossil was first found by a team of Egyptian environmental activists in 2008 in an area covered by sea in prehistoric times, but researchers only published their findings, which confirmed a new species last month.
Sallam said his team did not begin investigating the fossil until 2017 because he wanted to gather the best and most talented Egyptian paleontologists for the study.
“This is the first time in Egyptian vertebrate palaeontology that has an Egyptian team leading a documentation of a new genus and species of four-legged whales,” says Sallam.
The fossil highlights the development of whales from herbivorous land mammals to carnivorous species that today live exclusively in water. The transition took place over about 10 million years, according to an article published about the discovery in the journal Procedures of the Royal Society B.
Egypt’s western desert region is already known for the so-called Whale Valley, or Wadi Al-Hitan, a tourist attraction and the country’s only natural world heritage list that contains fossil remains of another type of prehistoric whales.
The newly discovered creature belongs to the family Protecetids, extinct half-water whales who lived from 59 to 34 million years ago, Sallam said. It would have gone ashore but also hunted in the water.
“This is yet another new species of early whale from the time when it retained four functional limbs,” said Jonathan Geisler, an expert on the evolutionary history of mammals at the New York Institute of Technology.
He said the site of the discovery in Egypt is also a clue as to when and how they spread throughout the world. Geisler was not involved in the find.
The oldest fossil whales are about 50 million years old and are believed to have originated in present-day Pakistan and India. But scientists have not been able to reach a conclusive answer as to when whales moved from their origins to all the world’s oceans.
“This new species in itself cannot answer that question, but when seen in connection with other fossil discoveries, it suggests that this spread occurred 43 million years ago,” says Geisler, adding that the new find may possibly serve as a link between Indo-Pakistan and North American regions.
The fossil whale has been named Phiomicetus Anubis, after the god of death in ancient Egypt.
“We chose the name Anubis because it had a strong and deadly bite,” says Sallam, a professor of paleontology at Mansoura University in Egypt. “It can kill all the creatures that it crossed paths with.”
The new species stands out for its elongated skull and snout, which indicates that it was an efficient carnivore that could grab and chew its prey, he said. It was about 3 meters (9 feet long) and weighed about 600 kilograms, according to researchers. It is also believed to have sharp hearing and a sense of smell.
The discovery followed a four-year collaboration between Egyptian paleontologists and American researchers, Sallam added.
His team has previously made headlines around the world with its 2018 discovery of Mansourasaurus, a new species of long-necked herbivorous dinosaurs that lived in the Nile Delta province of Mansoura.