Science

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

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

A fossilized whale with four legs, webbed feet and hoofed toes is revealing new details about the evolution and geographical spread of whales across the globe.

Newly published research sheds light on the ancestors of modern day whales, describing creatures that lived millions of years ago and, oddly enough, swam through water using four legs.

It had four limbs, like the whales that first evolved in present-day Pakistan and India more than 50 million years ago.

The finding represents the first indisputable evidence of a four-legged whale from the Pacific Ocean, said lead study author Olivier Lambert, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. The whale ancestor may have propelled itself through water by swimming in a similar manner, according to the researchers, though they note that the last tail vertebrae hasn't been found yet.

According to Lambert, it is likely that whales would initially have had to return to land for certain activities such as mating and giving birth to young.

It belonged to an entirely new genus and species of whales.

The first four-legged whales were largely confined to Asia. The skeleton dates to the middle Eocene, 42.6 million years ago. It has since been named Peregocetus pacificus, meaning "the travelling whale that reached the Pacific". The hooves coupled with the morphology of the creature's hips and limbs suggest the whale was able to walk on land. And the proportions of its fore and hind limbs, as well as the small hooves at the tips of the toes and fingers, all indicated that the ancient whale could still walk on land, the researchers report Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Although the bones are several million years old and broken into many pieces, they were nicely preserved and easy to spot in the sediment surrounding them, Lambert said.

A skeleton of the freakish land-walking whale provides answers about how whales first spread around the world.

The Pisco Basin, off Peru's southern coast, likely holds numerous fossils, given its excellent conditions for preservation. But at some point the goat-sized creature Pakicetus-found in what is now Pakistan and India-ended up back in the sea.

Its elongated snout and robust teeth - large grasping incisors and canines along with flesh-shearing molars - made Peregocetus adept at catching medium-size prey like fish. The fossil has enabled researchers to better understand the evolution of modern whales.

"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.

The latest discovery suggests early whales managed to swim there from South America.

This 2011 discovery confirmed that the animals were probably good swimmers and good at getting around on land. As whales' ancient ancestors became increasingly adapted to aquatic environments, they dispersed to North Africa and then to the Americas, eventually losing their hind legs and gaining flippers.

Scientists are intrigued about how ancient whales evolved from "small hoofed mammals to the blue whale we have today", as Travis Park from the Natural History Museum in London stated. "It's so interesting to see how they conquered the oceans".

Whales have one of the most fascinating evolutionary stories.



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