Published: Sat, April 06, 2019
Global News | By Blake Casey

Ancient Whale Fossils With Four Otter-Like Legs, Discovered In Peru

Ancient Whale Fossils With Four Otter-Like Legs, Discovered In Peru

Palaeontologists discovered the four-metre-long whale, which had four legs, webbed feet, hooves and a powerful tail.

The fossil dates back 42.6 million years ago and it has been discovered in the marine sediments that are placed along the coast of Peru.

The story of modern whales begins around 50 million years ago, in what is today India and Pakistan, with four-legged hoofed mammals about the size of a wolf. Unfortunately, scientists did not find the last part of the tail section of this creature, but the first vertebra connecting this section of the bones was similar to what modern-day beavers and otters have.

Publishing its findings to Current Biology, an global team of researchers from Peru, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium said the creature had four legs and was quite small.

This means that within less than 10 million years of early whales first appearing in Asia, they had successfully dispersed around the planet and were exploiting the rich reserves in not only the Atlantic but also the Pacific.

There is a specimen that shows that ancient whales were able to swim for days, or even weeks at a time while keeping their ability to wander the land.

"This is a genuinely surprising discovery based on a relatively complete fossil skeleton that shows that really ancient whales capable of swimming and walking made it to the Americas much earlier than previously thought", Erich Fitzgerald, senior curator of vertebrate paleontology at Museums Victoria, Melbourne, explained in an email to Gizmodo. The researchers had searched for fossils of extinct marine mammals there before, but did not expect to discover a four-legged whale skeleton. After having reached South America, the amphibious whales likely migrated northward, finally reaching North America.

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The researchers found that the whale's fingers and toes were tipped with small hooves. And, unlike today's whales, which dwell exclusively in the sea, this animal lived some of its life on land. This led scientists to hypothesize that amphibious whales likely reached North America after leaving Africa's western shores.

The whale fed at sea and probably only came on land for specific activities that could have included breeding or giving birth, Lambert said. And according to the study authors, Peregocetus might also be the oldest quadrupedal whale found in the Americas.

The Peruvian fossil suggests the first whales would have crossed the South Atlantic, helped by westward surface currents and the fact that, at the time, the distance between the two continents was half what it is today.

"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.

Over millennia, the pelvic bones uncoupled from the spine to enable more efficient swimming, while increased time in buoyant, gravity-easing water reduced the allocation of evolutionary resources to strong, weight-bearing legs.

"Whales are this iconic example of evolution", ancient whale researcher Travis Park said.

Whale ancestors with four legsare ample in the North American fossil record.

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