'Walking Whale' Fossil Discovered In Peru: 40-Million-Year-Old Specimen May Be Link Between Aquatic and Land Mammals

By Josh Lieberman on September 20, 2013 12:26 PM EDT

walking whale
A "walking whale" fossil discovered in Peru may provide new evidence for how whales evolved from land to sea creatures. Above, an artist's rendering of the Rodhocetus, a horrifying ancient creature related to the recently discovered whale. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Paleontologists in Peru have uncovered the fossils of a "walking whale," remains believed to be at least 40 million years old. The whale fossils were found in the Ocucaje desert, one of the richest sources of fossils in the world, and may be evidence of a link between sea mammals and their ancestors living on land.

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"We already knew about the paleontological richness of Ocucaje dating back 10-12 million years," said Rodolfo Salas, a paleontologist who was part of the discovery team. "Now we can say that the most important primitive sea mammal deposit in South America is at Ocucaje."

The whale fossils belong to a creature in the suborder Archaeoceti, meaning "ancient whales." These sea mammals share certain characteristics with their land-dwelling ancestors, most notably evidence of legs. The whale had teeth that were more like that of a terrestrial animal, as well as a cavity in the cranium that is more consistent with land mammals than sea mammals.

The first whale ancestors were very different from the whales of today. Some 50 million years ago, the "first whale," a furry, wolf-sized creature, lived on land but ate fish. Whale ancestors lost their hair and acquired web feet; eventually they lost their feet and gained flippers and a more streamlined shape for swimming. By about 45 million years ago, whales had developed into the more familiar, fully aquatic species.      

Fossils from sea mammals as old as the whale found in the Ocucaje desert have never been found in Peru before. Previous ancient sea mammal fossils have been found in Egypt, Pakistan and India. The Ocucaje desert has yielded remains of other marine creatures, and there are probably plenty more to be found.

"There is probably a greater number of fossils in the sand but it takes high-tech equipment to locate and recover them," said paleontologist Cesar Chacaltana.

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