Paleontologists in Peru unearthed the ancient fossil of a 40 million-year-old “walking whale.”
The remains of the giant beast were found in the Ocucaje Desert in southern Peru, an area known for being a treasure trove of ancient marine discovery. Its legs, which resemble its land-based ancestors, have given researchers hope that they have found a link between how today’s sea mammals evolved from amphibious to aquatic creatures.
"We already knew about the paleontological richness in Ocucaje dating back 10 to 12 million years," said paleontologist Rodolfo Salas. "Now we can say that the most important primitive sea mammal deposit in South America is at Ocucaje."
While similar types of fossils have been found in Egypt, Pakistan, India and North America, this is the first discovery of its kind in South America.
Belonging to a group called Achaeocetes, the whale is an ancient sea mammal that has features similar to land dwellers.
Scientists believe the first whale ancestor was a hairy, four-legged omnivore that evolved into a range of amphibious species 50 million years ago. Whales then gradually lost connection between their backbone and legs and finally lost their hind legs completely about 45 million years ago… long before Melville penned Moby Dick.
Peru’s Ocucaje Desert is the burial place for about 15 of these mammals, relatively well preserved thanks to the low level of oxygen in the substrate, which delayed decay caused by bacteria.
“There is probably a greater number of fossils in the sand but it takes high-tech equipment to locate and recover them,” said César Chacaltana, who headed a team during a tour of the site, according to the Daily Mail.