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September 28, 2023

Small ancient whale discovered in Egypt named after King Tut

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Fossilised remains of a small prehistoric whale found in Egypt is the smallest species of basilosaurid – an extinct family of aquatic whales.

Reconstruction of Tutcetus rayanensis. Credit: Ahmed Morsi and Hesham Sallam.

At only about 2.5 metres, the whale is known from skull, jaw, teeth and vertebrae fragments. The specimen would have been about 190 kilograms when it was alive. The description of the animal is published in Communications Biology.

While it hadn’t reached full adulthood, the whale is believed to have been near full size when it died. Its vertebrae had fused together, and its permanent teeth had emerged at an advanced stage.

The new species has been given the name Tutcetus rayanensis after ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, or “King Tut,” who is famous for his diminutive stature. Tutankhamun became the Egyptian ruler in 1332 BCE at the age of 9 and died at the age of 18 or 19.

Tutcetus rayanensis was found in Egypt’s Fayum Depression southwest of Cairo and about 400 kilometres north along the Nile River from the Valley of the Kings where King Tut was entombed.

The Egyptian paleontologists Abdullah Gohar, Mohamed Sameh, and Hesham Sallam (from left) next to the holotype fossils of the newly identified basilosaurid whale, Tutcetus rayanensis, at Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Center. Credit: Hesham Sallam.

The ancient whale is quite a bit older than its pharaoh namesake, living 41 million years ago.

Previously identified basilosaurids usually range from 4 to 18 metres in length. These ancient whales often had long, serpentine bodies and crocodile-shaped skulls.

Recently, a basilosaurid in Peru, Perucetus colossus, was discovered which may be the largest animal ever – weighing between 85 and 340 tonnes.

The authors of the study suggest that Tutcetus rayanensis’s smaller size may be the result of it having evolved in warmer climates. The warming known as the Lutetian thermal maximum occurred 42 million years ago.

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