Walking with Whales
  • Post published:May 8, 2020

Travelling to Egypt while staying right at home

It’s day 457 of the COVID Quarantine… or at least that’s what it feels like! Just like you all, I too have been stuck inside trying to think of different things to do to keep me entertained; colouring, painting, exercise, binge watching everything on Netflix and Disney+ and playing video games. Now some of you may think “what a way to rot my brain and waste time when I could be learning new and exciting things”. Well, I’ve got you there! Assassins Creed is a popular gaming franchise that covers all walks of time, the version I have been playing, Assassins Creed Origins, is set in Ancient Egyptian times. Now aside from the fairly accurate game play to let you in about style, life and culture etc. during the loading screen you see little facts about the period, one such fact told me that newlyweds used to tie a small piece of thread around the wife’s neck and when it broke it was a sign she was pregnant- smart hey? Additionally, the makers have created a clever little world tour that leads you through the different areas of the map. Upon exploring the desert, I came across an area called “Whale Valley” and here I am now researching about a place I had never heard of before!

Where is Whale Valley

Let’s set the scene on this one…

Wadi Al-Hitan in the Western Desert of Egypt, dry, hot and dusty orange sand covering everything the eye can see plus the odd rock here and there eroded in to all sorts of strange shapes. It’s hard to believe that this place used to be an ocean. Go back at least 37 million years and you would find yourself standing in a shallow tropical sea covering the area.

This now UNESCO site reveals the story of the evolution of whales from a land-based animal to a marine mammal. No other place in the world holds the number, concentration and quality of such well preserved fossils. The accessibility, setting and the protective landscape (sand stone) they are set in are all added bonuses. The fossils that were found were measured to be 50 feet long with vertebrae as thick as campfire logs!

Whale Valley which, was first discovered in 1902/03 by paleontologist Philip Gingerich and his team, contains invaluable fossil remains of the earliest record of whales, the Archaeoceti. This Parvorder of ancient whales lived from the Early Eocene to the late Oligocene… that’s 55 to 23 million years ago in other words.

Taken from Smithsonian magazine
Taken from Smithsonian magazine

Whale Ancestors

Most of the fossils in the valley belong to two genus of the parvorder Archaeoceti:

The larger Basilosaurus which, means “king lizard” was a giant, with an almost eel-like body. This animal had a variety of teeth in its mouth, canines and molars which, were found with heavy wear on them. This suggests Basilosaurus chewed its food rather than swallowed it whole.

This whale ancestor would have feasted on other creatures which called the area home too: primitive sea cows, giant crocodiles, sea turtle, sharks and myriad other fish. The Dorudon would have also been on the menu, we know this due to the teeth marks found in Dorudon skulls, they exactly match those of the Basilosaurus. This also tells us that the Basilosaurus had a bit force of 3,600 pounds per square inch. In comparison the Hippo only has a bite force of 2,000 pounds per square inch.

Basilosaurus measured between 15-20m long (about the same as a humpback whale). Due to its large size a buoyant nature, this animal would have stayed in the top layers of the water column.

It is one of the largest known animals to exist from the K-Pg mass extinction event that occurred about 66 million years ago.

A possible representation of a Basilosaurus.Taken from Smithsonian magazine
A possible representation of a Basilosaurus. Taken from Smithsonian magazine

 

The Dorudon is the other ancient whale skeleton found, the name means spear-tooth. They were about 5m in length (that’s just slightly bigger than a common bottlenose dolphin) and appeared to look more like a dolphin creature we see today, petite but heavily muscled.

That’s what you thought a least until looking to its mouth here, you see a jaw lined with serrated daggers instead of peg-like teeth. Dorudon preyed on fish and molluscs, the skeletons are sometimes found with jumbles of fish bones where their stomachs would have been.

Comparison of a Basilosaurus (top) and a Dorudon (bottom) taken form Voss et al., 2019
Comparison of a Basilosaurus (top) and a Dorudon (bottom) taken form Voss et al., 2019

 

Walking Whales

The skeletons found in the desert had not just small remains of hind limbs like some modern-day whales, but legs and knees too! The limited size of the hind limb, the fused tarsals and only three digits and, the missing connection to any lower vertebra led scientist to believe that any locomotive function was highly unlikely. Instead, it has been hypothesised that the limbs could have been used to aid in guiding the animal’s bodies along side each other during mating, much like the claspers that we see on sharks.

The small hind limb of a Basilosaurus.
The small hind limb of a Basilosaurus.

 

Gingerich suggests that whale’s land loving ancestors were deer or pig-like scavengers living near the sea. He could have come to this conclusion through the comparison of the teeth and feet. Artiodactyls which, are closely related to cetaceans, have a similar foot structure as seen in the Basilosaurus skeletons. About 55 million years ago, they started spending more time in the water, first eating dead fish along the shore, then chasing prey in the shallows, and then wading deeper and deeper. As they did, some evolved traits through the process of natural selection that facilitated hunting in water. Over time-since they no longer had to bear their full body weight at sea—they got bigger, their backbones elongated and their rib cages broadened.

Whale then…

So, if this blog has taught you anything it’s that:

  • Not all video games are bad…?
  • The Latin for ancient whale names was really cool
  • It sounds like Basilosaurus and Dorudon might have needed a good dentist!

Really though, Whale Valley is a hugely valuable part of the world that has helped strengthen the evolutionary links of how marine mammals went from the land to the water. The skeletons show us what the hind limbs looked like before they were reduced to insignificant bones and as such allow us to make connections to what terrestrial animals may have been the whales ancestors.

Teeth and bones found in the digestive areas of the ancient whales let us know not only what they fed on but what other animals were living at the time, the type of sea environment they lived in and who was the top of the food chain.

It shows us just how much information we can get from a skeleton to build up a picture of what life was like millions and millions of years ago.

Now where did I put my gaming controller? I’ve got a pyramid to climb!

___

Izzy David

Onboard Naturalist/Biologist for SpringTide Whale Watching & Eco Tours

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