A semiaquatic whale that lived 43 million years ago was so fearsome, paleontologists have named it after Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of death.
The newly discovered 10-foot-long (3 meters) species, dubbed Phiomicetus anubis, was a beast; When it was alive more than 43 million years ago, it both walked on land and swam in the water and had powerful jaw muscles that would have allowed it to easily chomp down on prey, such as crocodiles and small mammals, including the calves of other whale species.
By analyzing the whale’s partial remains — pieces of its skull, jaws, teeth, vertebrae and ribs — the team discovered that the 1,300-pound (600 kilogram) P. anubis is the earliest (or most “primitive”) whale in Africa from a group of semiaquatic whales known as the protocetids.
Moreover, big muscles on its head would have given it a powerful bite force, allowing it to capture large prey through snapping and biting. “We discovered how [its] fierce, deadly and powerful jaws were capable of tearing a wide range of prey,” Gohar said.P. anubis’s remains revealed that the protocetid whales had evolved a few new anatomical features and feeding strategies. For instance, P. anubis had long third incisors next to its canines, “which suggests that incisors and canines were used to catch, debilitate and retain faster and more elusive prey items (e.g. fish) before they were moved to the cheek teeth to be chewed into smaller pieces and swallowed,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Although today’s whales live in the water, their ancestors started out on land and gradually evolved into sea creatures. The earliest known whale, the wolf-size Pakicetus attocki, lived about 50 million years ago in what is now Pakistan.
The new discovery of P. anubis sheds more light on whale evolution, said Jonathan Geisler, an associate professor of anatomy at the New York Institute of Technology who was not involved with the study.
The study was published online Wednesday (Aug. 25) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.