A research team led by Egyptian scientists has succeeded in recording the discovery of the genus and species of the ancestors of amphibian whales, which roamed Egyptian waters about 43 million years ago and documented its discovery in a research paper published on 25th August in one of the world's most significant journals in biology, the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences.
The discovery is important because it represents a historical event with all meanings. After all, for the first time in history, an entire Arab-Egyptian team was able to lead a scientific paper and document the discovery of a new species of whale named in a branch of science that has remained the preserve of foreign scientists for a long time.
The fossils were discovered in 2008 by a team from the Ministry of Environment while they were searching for fossils of whales in the Wadi El Rayan Protected Area, Fayoum Governorate, in the Western Desert of Egypt. The team was led by Dr. Hisham Salam, Professor of Paleontology at the American University and Mansoura University, and Dr. Muhammad Sameh, Director General of the Central Reserves of the Region and the researcher Abdullah Gohar, who studies at the Faculty of Science, Department of Zoology.
After the discovery, the fossils were given to the Mansoura University Center for Vertebrate Fossils within the framework of a cooperation protocol between the Ministry of Environment and Mansoura University to be the subject of a master's thesis by the researcher Abdullah Gohar who is the main author of the research paper. Abdullah worked on the paper from 2017 to 25th August 2021, and then the research was published.
Mansoura University Center is the first center in Egypt – and in the Arab world and the Middle East – to be concerned with the research of vertebrate fossils, despite the richness of the Arab region and Egypt in fossils.
The center aims to study ancient fossils that lived millions of years ago and to attract scholars from the Middle East and all over the world to develop the science of vertebrate paleontology. The center collaborates with research groups, universities and natural history museums from all over the world, such as the University of Southern California, Ohio University, the University of Cambridge and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
"The real study of the excavations started from 2017 until the 25th of August 2021. Four years of detailed analytical study, genealogical studies, statistical analysis, ostensible anatomical studies on fossils and comparisons with all whales of the same species from all places of the world to decide whether they are new species or (if this species) have been discovered before," Abdullah Gohar said to Majalla.
Gohar's study was a comparative and detailed anatomical one of all the phenotypic characteristics of the whale's bone till he reached the full name and description.
"The research represents a key point because it increases our understanding of the evolution of whales from land to water as it is located in the middle of the evolutionary chain," Gohar explained.
"It is an amphibious whale with four limbs and represents a development in paleontology, not only in Egypt but in all the African continent," he added.
THE MAIN RESULTS OF THE RESEARCH
With a detailed anatomical study and comparisons, the researchers concluded that a new genus and type of whale which was not known before had been discovered and which represents an amphibious whale that lived in Egypt 43 million years ago. It has biological importance in paleontology because it represents a pivotal point in the middle of the evolution of whales from land to water.
The research also said that the discovered Egyptian whale, with a length of about 3 meters, weighing about 600 kilograms was able to walk on land and swim in the sea. The whale was distinguished by its strong olfactory (ability to smell) and hearing abilities, such as those possessed by mammals that live on land.
"The whale has on both sides of its skull, which we call the temporal fossa, it has a very large temporal fossa that were filled with muscles for biting and predation, and since it is large, it qualifies him to have a strong bite and strength in closing and opening the mouth, which gives him strength in predation," Gohar explained.
Gohar added that the whale was the fiercest one in the area he lived and was preying on most of the creatures that were with it. As a result, it could be a predator of some other whales.
THE MEANING OF THE WHALE’S NAME
Scientists named the new Egyptian whale "Phiomicetus Anubis ": In honor of the Fayoum Oasis, from which fossils of this whale were excavated, while Cetus is a Latin word meaning whale.
"In honor of the ancient Egyptian god of the dead, Anubis, we decided to add the name of the Pharaonic character to the whale's scientific name," Gohar said.
"Anubis represented with the body of a man and the head of a wolf, and we found a similarity between the wolf and the skull of the newly discovered whale," Gohar added.
Anubis is the god of the dead as we knew, and at the same time, the whale’s extremely predatory behavior made him seem like the god of the dead for all the animals that lived nearby.
"The choice of the name was not by chance - we wanted to tell the world that we do not only have civilization that extends for thousands of years, but we also have what is older than the pharaohs and the pyramids, we have a rich fossil heritage that extends for millions of years," Abdullah stated.
The issue of including the discovery in a museum is a point that is still under discussion, but the research team has received many comments from the most significant scientists from all over the world who are willing to see the whale in the future and work on it scientifically.
In addition to that, Abdullah told Majalla that the research has been covered extensively by scientific journals and news and scientific websites to the extent that it is classified as one of the most researched studies mentioned in social media and news agencies such as BBC, Reuters, Associated Press, The Independent and The Times.
THE RESEARCHER PASSION
Gohar is from Fayoum governorate and lives in an area somewhat close to Mount Qatrani there. He noticed that he was very close to an area that is rich in fossils.
"Through my readings, I discovered that I live in an area full of fossils of organisms that lived 37 million years ago. So my passion prompted me to study, research and communicate with Dr. Hisham, and he chose me to be one of a research team at the university to study fossils, and I succeeded to be a whale specialist in the team which includes various disciplines so far," Gohar told Majalla.
Although Egypt is one of the richest places in the world in fossils, we cannot find many Egyptian researchers who study this heritage. The discovered whale is like Nefertiti and Ramses II, however, there are no specialists in this science, and no books are talking about it, except for a rare few in the entire Arab World.
"You are researching unseen creatures that reigned over the earth and in a world, we had never lived in before. Imagine that you reveal with your brush an object that you are the first person in life to see 43 million years ago! This in itself is an event that deepens your passion and knowledge in science."
Gohar aspires to continue on this path and set up a school, bigger than the research group that includes various disciplines, in which their aim as researchers in paleontology is to raise generations capable of learning this science and offer an answer to the scientific puzzles, which have not been deciphered in the world through the Egyptian geology, the Egyptian natural heritage and the fossils found throughout the Arab world.
"The most important thing is to take part in the preparation of generations capable of the scientific competition in the field of vertebrate fossils all over the world." he added.