If not for an observant Italian stonecutter, a recently discovered fossil whale specimen from Egypt might have become part of the edifice of some new skyscraper rather than the focus of a scientific study.
This fossil skull and partial rib cage, described in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, show transitional features of a new species of early whale and hint at how it became a fossil in the first place.
Giovanni Bianucci of the Università di Pisa and Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan collaborated to describe this unique find. “The fossil came from deep in an enormous limestone quarry in Egypt, but it was only recognized to be a fossil skeleton when it was cut into decorative facing stone in Italy. Fortunately it then found its way to the museum in Pisa where it could be studied,” said Bianucci. Working with researchers at museums and universities in Egypt and using Google Earth, Gingerich was able to find and revisit the location of the quarry where the fossil had been quarried.
Because the limestone had already been cut into thick slabs about 1 inch (27mm) thick, details of the specimen could be examined in a way that would normally require destruction of a fossil. The researchers were able to remove the slices of the skull and rib cage from the stone and reposition them as they had been in life. After accomplishing this, they were able to investigate the unusual characters preserved by the fossil and recognize that it represented a new species, dubbed Aegyptocetus tarfa (ay-jip-to-SEE-tus TAR-fa).
Says Gingerich, “Connecting links that are intermediate in geological time, intermediate in morphological form, and intermediate in functional adaptation are the evidence for evolution, and Aegyptocetus tarfa falls right in the middle of what we know about the evolutionary transition of whales from land to sea.” Dating to around 40 million years ago, the fossil documents a transitional stage in the evolution of whales from their terrestrial ancestors to the fully aquatic species we see today. The transitional characters present in this species include a retained sense of smell (which is usually lost in aquatic mammal lineages), an enhanced ability to hear (a characteristic of later and modern whales), and the ability to still haul itself out of the water, similar to modern seals.
In addition to these transitional features, the fossil had some other surprises. Bite marks on its ribs may show that the whale was attacked by a shark before dying and becoming fossilized. “It is rare to find evidence of behavioral interaction in the fossil record, but here we have evidence of an early semiaquatic whale being attacked by a shark,” says Bianucci. In addition, small scars on the bones are the burrows of ancient barnacles, giving some idea about how long the carcass sat on the bottom of the ocean before being buried.
The researchers suspect there may be other fossils hidden in the limestone and are making connections with stonecutters who work with the rock from the quarry so that they can ask them to keep an eye out for other ancient treasures.About the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
For complimentary access to the full article beginning November 9, 2011, visit http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ujvp20/current.
The article appears in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 31(6), published by Taylor and Francis.
Citation: Bianucci, G. and P.D. Gingerich. 2011. AEGYPTOCETUS TARFA, N. GEN. ET SP. (MAMMALIA, CETACEA), FROM THE MIDDLE EOCENE OF EGYPT: CLINORHYNCHY, OLFACTION, AND HEARING IN A PROTOCETID WHALE. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 31(6):1-16.
AUTHOR CONTACT INFORMATION:Giovanni Bianucci
| Newswise Science News
Multi-institutional collaboration uncovers how molecular machines assemble
02.12.2016 | Salk Institute
Fertilized egg cells trigger and monitor loss of sperm’s epigenetic memory
02.12.2016 | IMBA - Institut für Molekulare Biotechnologie der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften GmbH
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water
In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...
The efficiency of power electronic systems is not solely dependent on electrical efficiency but also on weight, for example, in mobile systems. When the weight of relevant components and devices in airplanes, for instance, is reduced, fuel savings can be achieved and correspondingly greenhouse gas emissions decreased. New materials and components based on gallium nitride (GaN) can help to reduce weight and increase the efficiency. With these new materials, power electronic switches can be operated at higher switching frequency, resulting in higher power density and lower material costs.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE together with partners have investigated how these materials can be used to make power...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
02.12.2016 | Medical Engineering
02.12.2016 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
02.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy