Land-roaming prehistoric whale ‘could kill any creature in its path’

14 September 2021, 13:34

Egyptian whale fossil
Egypt Whale Fossil. Picture: PA

Phiomicetus Anubis was identified as a new species after a fossil find was made in Egypt’s Western Desert in 2008.

Egyptian scientists have said the fossil of a four-legged prehistoric whale which could “kill any creature it crossed paths with” is that of a previously unknown species.

The creature, an ancestor of the modern-day whale, is believed to have lived 43 million years ago.

Leading palaeontologist Professor Hesham Sallam said the creature, which lived both on land and sea, sported the features of an accomplished hunter – features that make it stand out among other whale fossils.

Whale fossil
The fossils were found in the Western Desert in 2008 (AP)

The fossil whale, which was unearthed in the Western Desert in 2008, has been 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,” said Prof Sallam, of Mansoura University in Egypt. “It could kill any creature it crossed paths with.”

The new species stands out for its elongated skull and snout, which suggest it was an efficient carnivore capable of grasping and chewing its prey, he said. It was about 9ft long and weighed around 600 kilograms (94 stone), according to researchers.

It is also believed to have had sharp hearing and a good sense of smell.

The fossil was first found by a team of Egyptian environmentalists in 2008 in an area that was covered by seas in prehistoric times, with researchers only publishing their findings confirming a new species last month.

Hesham Sallam
Prof Hesham Sallam (AP)

Prof Sallam said that his team did not start examining the fossil until 2017 because he wanted to assemble the best and the most talented Egyptian palaeontologists for the study.

“This is the first time in the history of Egyptian vertebrate palaeontology to have an Egyptian team leading a documentation of a new genus and species of four-legged whale,” added Prof Sallam.

The fossil sheds light on the evolution of whales from herbivore land mammals into carnivorous species that today live exclusively in water.

The transition took place over roughly 10 million years, according to an article published on the discovery in the journal Proceedings 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 site that contains fossil remains of another type of prehistoric whale.

The newly discovered creature belongs to the family of Protecetids, extinct semi-aquatic whales that lived from 59 to 34 million years ago, Prof Sallam said.

It would have walked on land but also hunted in the water.

Jonathan Geisler, an expert on the evolutionary history of mammals with New York Institute of Technology, said: “This is yet another new species of early whales from the time when they retained four functional limbs.”

He said that the location of the discovery in Egypt is also a clue as to when and how they spread around the globe. Mr Geisler was not involved in the find.

The oldest fossil whales are about 50 million years old and are believed to have originated in modern-day Pakistan and India.

However, scientists have not been able to reach a conclusive answer as to when whales moved out of their point of origin to all the world’s oceans.

Mr Geisler said: “This new species by itself cannot answer that question, but when viewed in the context of other fossil discoveries, suggests that this dispersal occurred 43 million years ago.”

He added that the new find could possibly serve as a link between Indo-Pakistan and North American regions.

The discovery followed a four-year collaboration between Egyptian palaeontologists and US-based scientists, Prof Sallam added.

His team has previously made headlines worldwide with their 2018 discovery of Mansourasaurus, a new species of long-necked herbivorous dinosaurs that lived in the Nile Delta province of Mansoura.

By Press Association