40-Million-Year-Old Whale Uncovered in the Desert

(NewsReady.com) – Scientists have taken a new look at fossils found in a Peruvian desert over a decade ago, and made an amazing discovery. The ancient bones belonged to a previously unknown whale species, and experts think it was the heaviest animal that’s ever lived.

More than 10 years ago, a team of paleontologists from the University of Camerino in Italy, who were searching for fossils in Peru’s Pisco Basin, discovered a group of enormous bones. Since then, the bones, thought to belong to an ancient whale, have been preserved in Peru’s Natural History Museum, and their discoverers have been studying them. Now, with colleagues from the University of Pisa, they’ve worked out exactly what the remains are.

Today, the Pisco Basin is a desert at the foot of the Andes mountains, but 40 million years ago, in the Eocene period, it was a shallow inland sea. The scientists have now discovered that the bones they found belonged to a huge whale that roamed that sea, which they’ve named Perucetus colossus — and because the bones were from the animal’s spine, ribcage, and pelvis, they can work out what it was like.

The remains show the whale belonged to a family of early-toothed whales called basilosaurids, which had powerful jaws adapted to catching bottom-living animals. What sets P. colossus apart from its relatives is its huge size; the whale was about 66 feet long and weighed up to 340 tons, more than twice as heavy as the blue whale, the most massive animal alive today. It was three times as heavy as the largest known dinosaur. Scientists think its immensely heavy skeleton acted as “ballast,” preventing the waves from moving it around as it hunted on the bed of the shallow Pisco sea.

This is an exciting find for scientists because it fills in more information about the evolution of whales. Whales are mammals, and their ancestors lived on land. Fossils show their development into animals that spent a lot of time in the water but could still walk up the beach, steadily evolving to become more and more aquatic. Paleontologists believe the basilosaurids were the first whales that spent their whole lives in water, and P. colossus confirms that — although it had tiny hind legs as well as powerful flippers, it was far too heavy to move on land and was a fully aquatic animal. Now we know it was also likely the heaviest animal that’s ever lived.

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