A diminutive whale, which roamed the waters approximately 41 million years ago, has been uncovered by paleontologists in Egypt, providing insights into a species that may have lived a brief yet agile existence.
Scientists made this remarkable discovery in the vicinity of Wadi el-Hitan in Egypt, a location renowned for its wealth of ancient whale fossils. Initially, the nature of the find eluded the researchers.
Professor Hesham Sallam, the visionary behind the Vertebrate Paleontology Center at Mansoura University (MUVP), recounted how their journey began with the unearthing of a solitary exposed tooth embedded in a limestone block. This specimen, dating back to the Eocene epoch spanning from around 55.8 million to 33.9 million years ago, posed an intriguing puzzle.
“As we delicately cleansed the sediment enveloping the fossils, an unprecedented spectacle from that era gradually emerged,” Professor Sallam remarked.
The whale has been christened Tutcetus rayanensis, a tribute to the legacy of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun and a nod to the fossil’s location in the Wadi el-Rayan region.
The research team identifies this creature as a basilosaurid, an extinct lineage believed to represent the initial marine-exclusive whales, distinct from their predecessors that dabbled in both aquatic and terrestrial domains.
Calculations indicate that this miniature whale, weighing approximately 187 kg (400 lb), measured around 2.5 meters (8 ft) in length. This renders it the smallest member within the basilosauridae family, which traditionally spanned between 4 to 20 meters.
Examination of the delicate enamel coating the whale’s teeth unveiled a diet centered around petite squids and perhaps crustaceans. Abdullah Gohar, a co-author from MUVP, remarked that this diet resembles the culinary preferences of contemporary dolphins.
The team’s assessment of the teeth and bones implies that this specimen was nearing adulthood at the time of its demise. The rapid tooth development and compact size of Tutcetus indicate a swift existence compared to larger, later basilosaurids.
Remarkably, this discovery comes on the heels of the disclosure of another ancient whale fossil, suspected to be the heftiest creature ever to inhabit the Earth, which too belongs to the basilosaurid lineage.
“This rich diversity and morphological variation may also enlighten us about the succession of the last amphibious cetaceans with four limbs by these inaugural fully aquatic whales,” Professor Sallam articulated, hinting at broader implications of this remarkable find.