June 24, 2019

Ancient four-legged whale from Peru walked on land, swam in sea

06 April 2019, 10:27 | Edward Lowe

Enlarge Image This illustration shows what Peregocetus might have looked like. A. Gennari

Enlarge Image This illustration shows what Peregocetus might have looked like.                  A. Gennari

Paleontologists have found a well-preserved fossil of a four-legged amphibian ancestor of whales, a discovery that sheds new light on the mammals' transition from land to the ocean.

In 2011, the fossilized remains of one of these four-legged amphibious creatures was found in 42.6-million-year-old marine sediments at Peru's Playa Media Luna.

"The new find from Peru is the geologically oldest quadrupedal whale from the Americas, so it gives a minimum age [for] when they reached the New World", said Olivier Lambert, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, who led the new research.

"Some vertebrae of the tail region share strong similarities with semi-aquatic mammals like otters, indicating the tail was predominantly used for underwater locomotion", Lambert added.

The specimen proves that early whales could swim for days or possibly weeks at a time while retaining the ability to walk on land. The fossil offers new insights into how these awesome creatures adapted to life in the water and expanded from the Indian subcontinent to the rest of the world. Its hoofed feet and the shape of its legs suggest it would have been capable of bearing the weight of its bulky four metre long body and walking on land.

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The sediment layers dated the whale to the middle Eocene, 42.6 million years ago. The creature has been named Peregocetus pacificus, which means "the traveling whale that reached the Pacific". Its hind legs were only a bit shorter than its front legs and it had tiny hooves on each toe and finger, suggesting it was very much capable of trotting about on land. Writing in the journal Current Biology, an global team of researchers reveal that the fossil represents "the first record of an amphibious whale for the whole Pacific Ocean".

Ultimately, Peregocetus would join other Cetacean species to split and become the whales or dolphins humans recognize today.

The whale fed at sea and probably only came on land for specific activities that could have included breeding or giving birth, Lambert said.

"The whales would have been assisted in their travel by westward surface currents and by the fact that, at the time, the distance between the two continents was half what it is today", they say.

"A skull would be great, as well as the tip of the tail", Lambert said.

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"Because this is the first record of a quadrupedal whale for the whole Pacific and the Southern Hemisphere, this find significantly increases the distribution of these early cetaceans", Lambert said. But its long appendages and large tail bones were similar to those of an otter, suggesting it must have been a proficient swimmer, too. They went from India to North Africa, and then to South America.

"The leg and foot anatomy is similar to that seen in older whales from Pakistan, so this discovery raises important questions about the routes early whales took to disperse around the globe as well as how effective they were moving through the water", Geisler said.

'The evolution of whales is perhaps the best-documented example of macroevolution that we have, with the group going from small, dog-sized, hoofed mammals to the giants of the ocean we know and love today, ' Travis Park, a postdoctoral fellow studying cetacean evolution, told the Natural History Museum.

"It has really intriguing implications for our understanding of the evolution of whales".

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