A prehistoric whale that swam in the water as well as walked on land has been named after the god of death. The semiaquatic whale, which lived about 43 million years ago, is called Phiomicetus anubis – in reference to Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of death. And the fact that its skull looked eerily similar to that of the jackal-headed deity, its name seems rather appropriate.
The species measured 3 meters in length (10 feet) and weighed approximately 600 kilograms (a little over 1,300 pounds). Paleontologists in Egypt’s Fayum Depression found the Phiomicetus anubis remains which included parts of its skull, jaw, teeth, ribs, and vertebrae. By analyzing the remains, they found that it had a very strong jaw and powerful bite that allowed it to munch on several different meals like crocodiles and small mammals (this included calves from different species of whale). In fact, it had long third incisors that were located beside its canines “which suggests that incisors and canines were used to catch, debilitate and retain faster and more elusive prey items (e.g. fish) before they were moved to the cheek teeth to be chewed into smaller pieces and swallowed,” the researchers explained in their study.
These features would have made it quite terrifying as explained in an email to Live Science by Abdullah Gohar who is a graduate student of vertebrate paleontology at Mansoura University in Egypt, “It was a successful, active predator.” “I think it was the god of death for most animals that lived alongside it.”
On the other hand, Phiomicetus anubis wasn’t completely fearless as it would have also been prey to other animals. Researchers found bite marks on the remains which suggest that sharks bit into it. However, since the shark bites indicate that they were smaller than the semiaquatic whale, they wouldn’t have been able to kill it so they were more than likely just feasting on its remains after it died.
By finding the remains of the Phiomicetus anubis species, experts learned more information regarding whales’ transition from land to water. Interestingly, an aquatic whale (Rayanistes afer) from around the same time period was previously found in the same area which suggests that the two species (semiaquatic and aquatic) lived in the same location at the same time but they probably were part of separate niches. There is, however, the possibility that the Phiomicetus anubis hunted the calves of the Rayanistes afer. (An illustration of what the Phiomicetus anubis would have looked like can be seen here.)
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences where it can be read in full.