Fossils of a four-legged ancient whale found in Peru give scientists a breakthrough insight about the evolution and geographic distribution of this aquatic mammal.
Marine sediment dating showed that the 42-million-year-old whale lived in South Asia during the Eocene period. It came from West Africa and swam across the Atlantic Ocean before it reached North America.
Details of the study published in Current Biology put an addendum that ancient whales made South America, not North America, their first home.
The Traveling Whale
Paleontologists discovered this new species called Peregocetus pacificus in 2011 at a site called Playa Media Luna. Most of it skeleton remained intact including the jaw, front and hind legs, pieces of its spine, and tail.
Its name is derived from the Latin words that mean "the traveling whale that reached the Pacific." It is amphibious, as it can adapt well in land and sea. It is measured 13 feet in length and has similar characteristics to otters and beavers.
"So we think the animal propelled through the water by wave-like movements of the posterior part of the body, including the tail, and by moving its large feet and long toes that were most likely webbed," said Olivier Lambert, paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.
Scientists believed that what they found is the oldest in the Americas and the most complete four-legged whale skeleton outside India and Pakistan.
"This is a genuinely surprising discovery based on a relatively complete fossil skeleton that shows that really ancient whales capable of swimming and walking made it to the Americas much earlier than previously thought," said Erich Fitzgerald, senior curator of vertebrate paleontology at Museums Victoria, Melbourne, who is not involved with the study.
Investigators said their search will continue to other localities. Felix Marx, a paleontologist from the University of Liège in Belgium, said this latest discovery presents Peru as a world-class fossil site.
Peru's Pisco Basin is a known site for paleontologists studying fossil whales. In 2017, Lambert's team excavated a 36.4-million-year-old relative of basilosaurids 200 meters away from where basilosaurids was found.