In the desert valley of Wadi al-Hitan, about 150 kilometers southwest of Cairo, Egypt has unveiled what it claims is the Middle East’s first museum dedicated to fossils., in which the “walking whales”, now extinct, are shown in an early way. The museum has been built thanks to a 2 million euro grant from Italy, according to Italian ambassador Maurizio Massari. The museum’s centerpiece is a 37-million-year-old, 20-meter-long skeleton of the legs of a “walking whale” that bears witness to how modern whales evolved from land-dwelling mammals.
This “whale museum” is also home to prehistoric tools used by early humans and various whale fossils displayed in glass cases, corroborating the evolutionary transition from the first land-based whales to aquatic creatures.
The museum, shaped like a sand-colored dome, is barely noticeable in the impressive desert landscape.
But, how do whale fossils end up in the middle of the hottest desert? That’s because the valley in which the museum is located was submerged in water some 40/50 million years ago by a sea called the Tethys Sea, which once extended to the south of today’s Mediterranean.
The largest intact Basulosaurus fossil on display at the museum, on opening day, in the Fayoum oasis, Egypt, Thursday, January 14, 2016.
Wadi al-Hitan, or “Valley of the Whales”, contains a valuable collection of fossils and bones of the now extinct Archaeoceti. These fossils explain one of the greatest mysteries of whale evolution: the appearance of the whale as a deep-sea mammal in a previous life as a land animal. Fossils from Wadi Al-Hitan, dating back 50 million years, show the youngest archaeocetes, in the last stages of the evolution of land animals to a marine existence. These already displayed the stylized body shape typical of modern whales, while retaining certain primitive aspects of the skull and tooth structure, as well as the hind legs. Many of the whale skeletons are in good condition, having been well preserved in rock formations. The museum preserves semi-complete skeletons and, in some cases, even with stomach contents.
The Museum was inaugurated as part of the government’s efforts to attract tourists, who have not come to the country lately due to recent militant attacks. The Egyptian government seeks to restore confidence in the safety of its attractions with this museum.
Fossil of a Sirenia (“sea cow”), in the Wadi Al-Hitan, or “Valley of Whales”, nature reserve area in the Al Fayum desert, southwest of Cairo, Egypt, on 14 November. January 2016.