Beyond The Valley Of The Whales

Whale skeleton at Wadi Al-Hitan. Photo:Volker Scherl

Whale skeleton at Wadi Al-Hitan. Photo:Volker Scherl

BBC News reports on an unlikely location for massive whale fossils: the Sahara desert in Egypt:

Its name in Arabic is Wadi Hitan but it is known as the Valley of the Whales.

For years archaeologists have been unearthing a remarkable collection of whale fossils, all the more surprising because the area is now inland desert in upper Egypt.

It is believed that about 40 million years ago the area was submerged in water, part of the Tethys Sea. As the sea retreated north to the Mediterranean it left a series of unique rock formations and also a cornucopia of fossils.

One of the most exceptional finds was a 37 million-year-old whale from the species Basilosaurus Isis, unearthed by a team led by Prof Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan in the United States.

But now it has become the subject of a bizarre customs wrangle at Cairo airport.

Prof Gingerich explained that this was the only complete specimen from this species of whale.

It provides evidence of how whales evolved from being land-based creatures to go back into the sea – a reverse of the usual evolutionary process.

The ankle, foot, and toes of a Basilosaurus Isis. Image: Prof Philip Gingerich
Basilosaurus Isis retained tiny feet, a useless reminder of its evolution from land animal to sea-dweller.

The limbs are human sized, even though the creature is 15m-16m long…

[continues at BBC News]

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