A team of scientists are currently studying the remains of a 17 million year old beaked whale that was approximately 22 foot long. According to the researchers, the prehistoric whale, which swam in an African river millions of years ago, may offer some clues regarding the climate changes that were responsible for shaping human evolution.
The 17 million year old whale fossil consists of a fossilized beak and a piece of the jaw bone, and has been missing for more than 30 years.
According to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the fossils could help scientists determine when the East African Plateau began to rise. After detailed analysis, scientists believe it started to rise at least 17 million years ago.
Louis Jacobs, one of the lead authors of the new study, explained that the whale fossils reveal many important things. Jacobs, who is a paleontologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says that the whale can offer hints on the starting point of the uplift that brought severe changes to the climate, which led to the appearance of humans.
Jacobs calls the new findings “amazing” because they can shed new light on understanding human evolution.
Jacobs says he has been looking for this special whale fossil since the 1980s, when he was a paleontologist at the National Museums of Kenya.
He had found out about the fossil after reading about it in a 1975 scientific paper. The whale fossils were first discovered in 1964.
Jacobs would try to locate the fossils every time he visited Nairobi, Washington or Harvard, he researcher recounts.
According to the paleontologist, the fossils were very hard to find because they were covered by a plaster jacket, which made it impossible to see it. Jacobs suspects that no one really knew what was under that plaster jacket so the fossils remained among other collections for many years.
Finally, the fossils were discovered by a Harvard researcher who thought of cutting through the protective jacket, right before leaving to look for it in Kenya, in 2011.
Jacobs and his team of scientists then had the fossils scanned and analyzed, before contacting Henry Wichura, a structural geologist from the University of Potsdam in Germany.
Wichura had been studying the plateau region for many years trying to determine when this started to rise for the first time.
According to him, there is evidence of rivers and lava flowing eastward from the highest points on the plateau, more than 13 million years ago.
Wichura said that the only thing missing was the geological evidence of the starting point. The researcher explains that this does not exist in this area, at least not from a geological point of view.
He explains the reason for this, saying that the multiple forces are responsible for shaping the area.
There is a hot spot inside the Earth’s mantle that is responsible for pushing up a very large area of the eastern side of Africa. This happened while the crust was being fractured by rifts from the tectonic forces.
The scientists used Mead’s notes to determine exactly where the whale fossils had been unearthed. It was very important for them to find out at what elevation the fossils were located. It turned out they were more than 2,000 feet above sea level.
When they gathered this information, the researchers started to search for incidents involving whales that had swum upriver from the sea.
Jacobs believes that the river had to be a large one with a low gradient and whale had to swim a long way up to in order to succeed.
Based on the collected data, including the sea level and the way Africa was shaped millions of years ago, the whale must have traveled approximately 372 to 559 miles, from the Indian Ocean, which would have brought it to an elevation level of 78 to 121 feet.
The authors of the study estimate that the area must have risen at least 1,935 feet in order to reach its present level of elevation.
The whale’s fossilized bones were discovered buried under thick layers of sediment, which were covered in lava flow that came from a volcano erupting more than 17 million years ago.
Image Source: sciencenews
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