Ancient four-legged whale fossil found

Peregocetus pacificus

Peregocetus pacificus

Newly published research sheds light on the ancestors of modern day whales, describing creatures that lived millions of years ago and, oddly enough, swam through water using four legs.

The bones provide clues about how the animal moved on land and in the water.

Study author Doctor Olivier Lambert, of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, said: 'This is the first indisputable record of a quadrupedal whale skeleton for the whole Pacific Ocean, probably the oldest for the Americas, and the most complete outside India and Pakistan.

Its fossil, which was found in marine sediments along the coast of Peru in 2011, suggests that it had adapted to an amphibious lifestyle. The first fully aquatic whales date to around 41m to 35m years ago, filling an ecological niche left vacant when the last marine reptiles - along with the dinosaurs - went extinct 66m years ago. They hope to find bones that may be even older so that they can fill in more pieces of this puzzle about how the whale evolved over time.

Artist impression of Peregocetus pacificus.

"We found a really incredible specimen", said paleontologist Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi of Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, who was part of the team that reported the find in the journal Current Biology.

The researchers gave the fossil a fitting name, Peregocetus pacificus, meaning "the traveling whale that reached the Pacific".

The global team continues to study the remains of other whales and dolphins from Peru.

Once upon a time-in the Eocene epoch-whales were quadrupeds.

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The cetaceans, the group including whales and dolphins, originated in south Asia more than 50 million years ago from a small, four-legged, hoofed ancestor.

The team believes Peregocetus got to Peru by swimming across the South Atlantic-the distance of this would have been half what it is today because of the movements of the continents.

In addition to four limbs, which provided the capability to walk on land and return to the sea, Peregocetus likely also had an elongated snout and teeth to capture prey. The hind limbs eventually become mere vestiges. Then it might shift to undulating its body up and down from the tail to the hip.

Seals and sea lions are closely related to dogs, while manatees share ancestry with elephants.

It only took a few hours of excavation for diggers to find the first traces of the whale in Peru's Pisco Basin.

As they spent longer in the water, their legs evolved into flippers - while their noses developed into the blow holes found in the top of whales' heads. That's probably how they crossed the Atlantic Ocean, researchers said. It likely ate large bony fish, as many whales do today. The researchers suggest that, only after having reached South America, the amphibious whales migrated northward, finally reaching North America.

The fossil is the most complete quadrupedal whale discovered outside of India and Pakistan, Lambert said.

There are many intermediary stages of this "spectacular evolutionary history" that have been found over the years, "but we still miss elements, so we should keep searching in other parts of the world, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, for skeletons of these odd four-legged whales, to make the whole scenario better understood", Lambert said. "That tells us early on in whale evolution they had gotten much farther than we had previously understood".

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