Four-legged whale skeleton found in Peru is 43 million years old

This illustration shows an artistic reconstruction of two individuals of Peregocetus one standing along the rocky shore of nowadays Peru and the other preying upon sparid fish. The presence of a tail fluke remains hypothetical. Credit A. Gennari

Its remarkably well-preserved remains were found in 2011 at a site called Playa Media Luna, where paleontologists recovered most of its skeleton, including its jaw, front and hind legs, bits of spine, and tail.

The story of modern whales begins around 50 million years ago, in what is today India and Pakistan, with four-legged hoofed mammals about the size of a wolf.

The fossil record has already revealed that whales and dolphins can trace their ancestry back more than 50 million years to four-legged land animals in south Asia.

Older and smaller whale ancestors with four limbs had been discovered previously, but the latest specimen fills in a crucial gap in knowledge about how the creatures evolved and spread throughout the world's oceans. The ancient whale probably used its webbed feet to paddle and its tail to propel itself through the water in a fashion similar to otters. It could swim as well as walk on land and measured about 13 feet (4 meters) long.

However, the fact it has a tail and feet with long, webbed appendages means it was a good swimmer, similar to an otter. The geological age of the whale and its location on the western coast of South America are strong evidence for the hypothesis that early cetaceans reached the New World across the South Atlantic, from the western coast of Africa to South America, the researchers report. As whales' ancient ancestors became increasingly adapted to aquatic environments, they dispersed to North Africa and then to the Americas, eventually losing their hind legs and gaining flippers.

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"Whales are this iconic example of evolution", ancient whale researcher Travis Park said.

"We have known for a while that four-legged whales had made it to North America, but this is the first reliable record from South America and thus also the first from the southern hemisphere", said Marx.

Pieces of four-legged whales were found in Egypt, Nigeria, Togo, Senegal and Western Sahara, but they were so fragmented that it was impossible to decisively conclude whether they could swim. The team that found it named it Peregocetus pacificus.

The research was published online this week in the journal Current Biology.

Joining the recent unearthing of valuable fossils such as the Qingjiang biota, the amphibious whale discovered has been a source of intrigue and awe for the team involved.

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Until now, paleontologists thought these ancient whales had only made it to North America, and hadn't strayed south.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, an global team of researchers reveal that the fossil represents "the first record of an amphibious whale for the whole Pacific Ocean".

Some 42 million years ago, while it was still capable of walking on land, one such creature undertook a daring trip: from Africa to South America.

Previous finds, focused around India and Pakistan, uncovered a species referred to a Cetaceans and were widely considered the progenitors to modern whales and dolphins.

Where Did the Ancient Whale Come From?

. At this point in prehistory, the distance between the continents was half of what it is today, and the whales may have been helped along by surface currents.

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