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Whale Fossil In The African Desert


By James Donahue

April 2005


A team of researchers has uncovered an 50-foot-long fossil of a pre-historic whale in a most unlikely place, the Western Sahara of Egypt.


This 40 million-year-old relic, identified as Basilosaurus isis, is a complete and well-preserved skeleton that was excavated by paleontologists from the University of Michigan and Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency.


The huge fossil will be shipped to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for preservation, examination and a careful study to determine just how this animal lived and moved. After that a casting will be made for reconstruction before the remains are returned to an Egyptian museum.


The fact that the remains of this ancient whale were found in a remote desert area known as Wadi Hitan is not the only thing strange about this particular story. It seems that the blowing winds have been slowly exposing a number of skeletal remains of sea creatures trapped in a sandstone formation there.


It was obviously an ancient sea bed before the land rose, or the sea level dropped, and these creatures became trapped there.


That whales were among the animals, and that they had grown to great size, suggests that whatever happened to cause them to be trapped in the muck at that place, occurred very quickly. Like the old tar pits of the ancient tundra region that entombed the dinosaurs, something caused these prehistoric creatures to also became preserved in the sandstone for millions of years.


The Basilosaurus is also unique because the bone structure shows tiny, useless legs, feet and toes representing hind legs of a creature that once crawled on land before turning to the sea.


This species also is of interest because, unlike contemporary whales, it has an unusually long and serpentine body. It is one of many like it that have been found in Wadi Hitan since they were first discovered in 1905.


Also found in the desert sands there are four other species of whales, three species of sea cows, two types of crocodile, several turtles, a sea snake, fossilized sharks and bony fish.


Although extremely remote and hard to get to, Wadi Hitan is a protected area that is being developed as a national park by an Italian-Egyptian cooperative program. Because of its natural beauty and scientific importance, the area also has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


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