Living during the mid-Eocene, about 43 million years ago, in a shallow sea-covered region that is now part of Egypt‘s Western Desert, Phiomicetus was an early protocetid – an amphibious foot-powered swimmer, at a transitional point in the evolution of whales from deer-like terrestrial animals to fully aquatic screaming torpedoes.
About 3m long (~10′), it had large jaw muscles and sharp teeth with wear patterns that suggest it was a raptorial hunter grabbing and snapping at prey with powerful bites. It would have probably tackled fairly big prey compared to other protocetids, hunting things like large fish, turtles, and even smaller whales in an ecological role similar to that of modern orcas.
Along with the distantly-related long-snouted Rayanistes it’s one of the earliest known whales from Africa, giving us further glimpses at a time period when early cetaceans were first dispersing out from the South Asian subcontinent via the ancient Tethys Sea.
They had a mixture of anatomical features similar to true seals, sea lions, and walruses, but weren’t actually the ancestors of any of those modern groups. Instead they seem to have just been their own separate thing, a very early diverging “cousin” lineage of pinnipeds that convergently developed close resemblances to their later relatives.
It would have been a sea lion-like animal, able to walk on all fours when hauled out on land, and showed distinct sexual dimorphism, with males growing to sizes of around 4m long (13′) and females being somewhat smaller. It powered its swimming using its front flippers, and may have mostly foraged in deep dark waters, using both keen vision and sensitive whiskers to locate prey.
The nasal region of its skull also shows some similarities to modern elephant seals, and some reconstructions depict males with the same sort of large proboscis.
Early members of this group swam like otters, using a combination of undulating their bodies and paddling with large hind limbs, but somewhere in the Late Eocene they switched over to propelling themselves entirely with their tails and gave rise to even more whale-like forms like the basilosaurids.
Discovered in the Wadi Al-Hitan (“Valley of the Whales”) fossil site in Egypt, Aegicetus lived around 37-35 million years ago. It was similarly-sized to earlier protocetids like Georgiacetus, measuring about 3.5m long (11’6″), but its hind limbs were proportionally smaller. Its hips were also completely disconnected from its vertebrae, giving it much more flexibility to undulate its body and tail – and preventing it from supporting its weight on land, suggesting that it spent its entire life in the water.
It wasn’t a direct ancestor to more “advanced” cetaceans, since it lived alongside several species of basilosaurids. Instead it seems to represent a late-surviving example of what the earlier protocetid-basilosaurid transitional forms would have looked like.
Since the last coupleof weeks have featured marine mammals, let’s have one more! This time not a cetacean but a member of the other group of fully aquatic mammals still alive today: the sirenians.
Although commonly known as “sea-cows” due to their herbivorous grazing habits, sirenians’ closest living relatives are actually modern elephants. They’re thought to have originated in Africa over 50 million years ago, starting off as pig-like or hippo-like semi-aquatic animals — but they must have been good swimmers capable of crossing oceans very early in their evolutionary history, since some of the earliest known sirenian fossils actually come from the other side of the Atlantic on the Caribbean island of Jamaica.
Sobrarbesiren cardieli here extends some of our knowledge of early four-legged sirenians to Europe, dating to the mid-Eocene about 42 million years ago. Hundreds of bones were found in Northeastern Spain, representing at least six different individuals and giving us a fairly complete idea of this species’ anatomy.
It was smaller than modern sea-cows, reaching about 2m long (6’6″), and seems to represent a transitional point between the semi-aquatic ancestral sirenians and fully aquatic later forms. It had a head very similar to its modern relatives, and probably a tail fin, but also still retained small functional hind limbs.
It was initially thought to still be somewhat semi-aquatic and capable of quadrupedal locomotion on land, but a later analysis of its hind limb bones suggests that it may actually have been much more aquatic than that. Its hind legs had a wide range of motion and were probably used for otter-like swimming, undulating the body while paddling, but might not have been capable of supporting its weight on land. So if Sobrarbesiren did still haul out of the water, it may have had to move more like a seal.
Last week’s weird-snouted Furcacetus wasn’t the only recently-discovered ancient platanistoid dolphin that deserves some attention.
Ensidelphis riveroi was described in the same paper, and also lived in the coastal waters around Peru during the early Miocene, about 19 million years ago. It was a little less closely related to its modern river-dwelling cousins than Furcacetus, and was slightly larger, estimated to have measured about 3m long (9’10”).
But what made it weird was its incredibly long snout, lined with around 256 tiny sharp teeth, which also curved markedly to the right side along its 55cm (1’10”) length.
With only one known skull of Ensidelphis it’s impossible to tell if this was a natural condition for the species or if it was some sort of anomalous individual. It doesn’t seem to be a deformation of the fossil, at least.
Similar unusual right-side bending has been seen in the skulls of a few individuals of modern South Asian river dolphins, franciscanas, and Amazon river dolphins, possibly caused by injuries at a young age being exaggerated as the animals grew. However, many other platanistoid dolphins (especially squalodelphinids) are known to have naturally had similar bends in their snouts – but always to the opposite side, curving to the left instead of the right.
But naturally bent or not, what might Ensidelphis have been doing with that incredibly lengthy snoot?
Its long slender jaws would have had a fairly weak bite, so it probably wasn’t able to catch large prey, and it had a very flexible neck. Possibly it swam along near the seafloor using its snout to probe and sweep around in the sediment for buried small prey.
Modern South Asian river dolphins swim along on their sides while doing this – almost always on their right sides, interestingly enough – and if Ensidelphis did the same sort of thing then a snout bent in that direction might have been an advantage.
The two living subspecies of the South Asian river dolphin are the last surviving members of a lineage known as the Platanistoidea, an early evolutionary branch of the toothed whales. This group was once much more diverse and widespread than their modern representatives, found in oceanic habitats around the world from the Oligocene to the mid-Miocene.
Manyofthem had forward-pointing protruding teeth at the tips of their snouts, resembling those of some plesiosaurs or pterosaurs, suggesting they were a convergent adaptation used for snagging hold of slippery soft-bodied aquatic prey.
Furcacetus flexirostrum is one the newest additions to this group, named and described in late March 2020. It lived in Pacific coastal waters around Peru during the early Miocene, about 19-18 million years ago, and was about the same size as modern South Asian river dolphins at around 2.3m long (7’7″).
And it had a uniquely-shaped snout for a cetacean, curving upwards for most of its length but then turning downwards right at the tip, which along with large forward-pointing teeth gave its jaws a vaguely crocodilian appearance.
Its upper jaw was around five times longer than the rest of its skull, and toothless past the point where the lower jaw ended. Much like the modern billfish it resembled, it probably used its snout to slash at fast-moving fish, stunning them and making them easier to catch.
We have a fairly good picture of the evolutionary origins of most groups of aquatic mammals – except for the pinnipeds. The fossil record of early seals is still rather sparse, and for a long time the earliest known species was Enaliarctos, an animal that was already very seal-like and didn’t help much in figuring out whether seals’ closest living relatives are bears or musteloids.
But then Puijila darwini was found in the late 2000s, a transitional form with a near-complete skeleton, filling in a gap in our understanding so conveniently it almost seems too good to be true.
Discovered in Nunavut, Canada, Puijila dates to the early Miocene, about 23-20 million years ago. It was a small freshwater otter-like animal, about 1m long (3’3″), with a long tail and webbed feet adapted for paddling with all four of its limbs.
It lived at around the same time as the more specialized Enaliarctos, so it wasn’t a direct ancestor of modern seals, instead being part of an early offshoot lineage that retained more basal characteristics – but it does gives us a clue as to what the earliest pinnipeds looked like. Along with genetic studies it also helped to clarify that seals’ closest relatives are indeed the musteloids, although they’re estimated to have last shared a common ancestor around 45 million years ago so there’s still a lot of time unaccounted for in the proto-seal fossil record.
Several other fossil species that were previously thought to be musteloids have now also been recognized as close relatives of Puijila, and it seems that they were a fairly widespread group basically filling the ecological niche of otters at a time before true otters existed.
Most surprising and frustrating of all, however, is that some of these other otter-seals actually survived all the way into the Pleistocene, only going completely extinct sometime in the last 2 million years.