Egyptian paleontologists have discovered a species of extinct whale that existed 41 million years ago, a time when the precursors of whales were in the final stages of transitioning from land to sea.
The researchers have named this species “Tutcetus rayanensis,” in honor of the Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun and the Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area situated in Egypt’s Fayoum Oasis, where the original specimen was discovered.
Measuring around 2.5 meters (eight feet) in length and weighing approximately 187 kilograms (410 pounds), Tutcetus stands as the smallest species identified within the basilosaurids, an ancient group of whales that exclusively inhabited aquatic environments.
Leading the team, Hesham Sallam from the American University in Cairo (AUC) described it as a “remarkable discovery that documents one of the first phases of the transition to a fully aquatic lifestyle.”
Basilosaurids evolved “fish-like traits, including a streamlined body, robust tail, flippers, and a tail fin. They possessed hind limbs that were the last vestiges visibly resembling ‘legs,’ though these were not employed for walking but potentially for mating purposes,” Sallam explained in a statement from the American University in Cairo (AUC).
Erik Seiffert from the University of Southern California, a co-author of the team’s study published in Communications Biology, emphasized that Egypt’s Eocene fossil sites in the Western Desert have maintained their status as the globe’s foremost locations for comprehending the initial stages of whale evolution and their complete adaptation to an aquatic lifestyle.
Situated approximately 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Cairo, the Fayoum Oasis is home to Wadi al-Hitan, also known as the Valley of the Whales, a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for yielding numerous fossils representing some of the earliest manifestations of whales.
In the Eocene period, spanning 56 to 34 million years ago, Fayoum, which now stands as an oasis in the Western Desert, was submerged beneath a tropical sea.