Tutcetus rayanensis, named after King Tut or Pharaoh Tutankhamun, was a relatively tiny whale living 41 million years ago. Paleontologists discovered fossils south of what is today Cairo in the desert.
“The name is also a nod to the discovery of the king’s tomb a century ago and coincides with the impending opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza,” reported The Independent.
The whale was about eight feet long and had small hind limbs like legs. Scientists think they were among the first group to leave the land to become fully aquatic. T. rayanensis is in the family of extinct whales, Basilosauridae.
The newly-discovered species is the oldest whale found in Africa and the smallest whale of its family. The findings were published in Nature on August 10. Other basilosaurids were considerably bigger, including another family member recently discovered in Peru that was colossal. Perucetus colossus was possibly the heaviest animal in Earth’s history, surpassing even the blue whale.
Video by Science News about the whale named for King Tut.
Whale Valley in the Egyptian Desert
Paleontologists found the whale fossils in the desert encased in limestone. The location was 25 miles from “Whale Valley,” near the Nile River, home the Wadi El-Hitan World Heritage Site.
Among the fossils were a partial skull, jaw, spinal vertebra, and teeth indicating the whale died in adolescence. Due to the premature death, the scientists likened it to Pharaoh Tutankhamun, who died in his late teens in 1324 BC.
The Size of a Blue Whale’s Heart
In weight, the young whales were around 440 pounds or 200 kilograms. In comparison, Science News noted that’s about the size of a blue whale’s heart, or a bottlenose dolphin.
Its teeth were smooth and sharp, leading scientists to suspect its diet was made up of soft-bodied sea creatures like octopuses, squids, possibly crustaceans, and slower-moving fish. Thus, its diet was also much like dolphins.
At the time, the world was in a short-lived warming climate change event called the Lutetian Thermal Maximum. Due to rapid changes, other species were likewise becoming smaller and living fast. Temperatures in the deep sea rose by 2º Celsius, causing food sources to go extinct or become scarce. To survive in a changing climate, the whales were rapidly evolving.
“T. rayanensis lived fast and died fast. This could also be an adaptation to climate change,” Abdullah Gohar, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Zoology at Mansoura University in Egypt, told Live Science.
Whale Named for Anubis
In 2021, paleontologists released findings about another species, Phiomicetus Anubis, in the Whale Valley. Unlike King Tut’s whale, this four-legged species was a fierce, land-roaming creature that hunted on land and sea. Like Tut’s whale, the name is a nod to Egyptian figure, Anubis, the deity associated with mummification, funerary rites, and the afterlife. Or, as many articles stated, the “god of death,” to dramatic effect.
The species was about nine feet long, 1,300 pounds, and had elongated powerful jaws. Fittingly, It looked like a large hairless dog with webbed feet. In ancient reliefs, Anubis often has the head of a jackal, but the researchers chose the name because of its deadly bite.
“We chose the name Anubis because it had a strong and deadly bite,” said Sallam, professor of paleontology at Mansoura University in Egypt. “It could kill any creature it crossed paths with.”
Video by Mr Scientific about Phiomicetus Anubis:
Featured image: Tutankhamun and his wife, Wikimedia Commons, Pataki Márta, (CC BY-SA 3.0) with Tutcetus rayanensis, Hesham Sallam / Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Center