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Wadi Al-Hitan, Egypt

In the desolate desert 150 kilometers southwest of Cairo there is a fearsome arid valley (wadi) of cliffs, carved buttes, and sandblasted erratic boulders.  The bleached landscape has an otherworldly emptiness as though it were located on a lifeless alien planet, though if you look closely, the desert is filled with austere furtive life like dorcas gazelles, tiny sand colored lizards, cobras, scorpions, and fennec foxes. The name of the place is even more otherworldly—“Wadi Al-Hitan” which is Arabic for “valley of the whales” and although the great smooth rocks buckling out of the sand might momentarily be taken for the backs of huge whales, the utter absence of the ocean (or of water of any kind) makes the name seem fanciful. The nearby Mount Garet Gohannam (which means mountain of hell because of the way it glows like flames at sunset) seems to be more aptly named.

Whale fossil at Wadi Al-Hitan

However the name of Wadi Al-Hitan is remarkably literal–for the valley contains the remains of hundreds of huge ancient cetaceans which died in the Eocene and were fossilized in the yellowish sandstone.  Forty million years ago the valley was a marine lagoon.  Although the remains of numerous sirenians, sawfish, sharks, rays, sea turtles, marine crocodiles, sea snakes, and even swamp dwelling moeritheriums have been discovered in the wadi, the valley takes its name from the most spectacular and numerous fossils which belong to four different species of primitive whales.  The most commonly discovered fossils belong to Dorudon, which was 3-5 meters long (9-15 feet) and fed on fish and mollusks, and to Basilosaurus, which was 15-22 meter (50-72 foot) and fed on everything else in the ocean.

Basilosaurus was first discovered in Louisiana in the early 19th century.  Its immense size and serpentine form initially convinced naturalists that it was a marine reptile and they misnamed the creature Basilosaurus (which means “king lizard”).  The mistake soon became obvious and Basilosaurus was classified among the Archaeoceti, a paraphyletic suborder of the cetaceans, however the giant kept its dinosaur name.  Different species of Basilosaurus flourished in oceans worldwide during the wet, tropical Eocene and, even though they were obviously very adept at ocean living (indeed rising to the top of the food chain) the creatures betray vestiges of terrestrial living which modern whales have entirely dispensed with. Not only do Basilosaurus fossils have teeth and jaws which retain reatures from their artiodactyl ancestors, they also have tiny vestigial back legs a mere half meter in length (which would scarely help a 22 meter animal get around).  Additionally Basilosaurus was different from modern whales in that it probably moved with eel-like horizontal thrashing of its long tail (modern whales move their flukes vertically).  Basilosaurus probably did not dive very deeply, but moved about near the surface of the oceans hunting for smaller marine animals.

Basilosaurus from “Life in the Ancient Seas Exhibit” at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Although Wadi Al-Hitan was discovered by Europeans in 1902-1903, some archaeologists and anthropologists have speculated that it was known long before that and have been irresistibly drawn towards comparing basilosaurus with the giant crocodiles and earth spanning serpent gods which populate ancient Egyptian cosmology.

Detail from painting (Life in the Ancient Seas Exhibit: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History)

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