Ancient Whale Bones Discovered On West Coast

UCT palaeontologists have discovered five-million-year-old whale bones at the West Coast Fossil Park.

The whales are related to baleen whales and further research will be conducted to show if they are related to similar whale fossils found in the Mediterranean.

The study was conducted in a partnership between academic institutions and museums at Langebaanweg fossil locality, known as the West Coast Fossil Park.

Iziko curator of Cenozoic palaeontology Dr Romala Govender, UCT palaeontologist Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan and whale biologist Dr Michelangelo Bisconti, from the Natural History Museum of San Diego, California, were involved.

Very little was known of the marine life off the coast, said Govender, which is what sparked her interest in the research.

“Many studies of the land creatures and plant life were done but so much is still unknown about what was living off the coast.

“The fossil whales studied are all extinct and part of a family – the balaenopterids (baleen whales) – which still live off the coast today,” said Govender.

Poor preservation meant they were unsure if they were the same species as the one from the Mediterranean, said Govender, or if they were a different species related to it.

“I will be pursuing new excavations at the West Coast Fossil Park in order to answer these questions.

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“The bones from the ear region gave the most information and were used to understand their relationships and to try and identify the fossil whales,” said Govender.

The West Coast used to be a forested environment five million years ago, said Chinsamy-Turan, but had changed drastically.

“Elephants, bears, giraffe relatives, etc were there and today the area has fynbos plants. None of these animals live in the area,” said Chinsamy-Turan.

A recent study published in the Australasian Journal of Palaeontology, Alcheringa, confirmed that baleen whales were part of the biodiversity in the waters along our coast five to seven million years ago.

Studying the baleen whales’ distinctive ear bones revealed that these bones were similar to fossils from the Mediterranean.

Seal and penguin fossils were also recovered in the West Coast, proving these species were already part of the coast’s marine ecosystem five million years ago, which was different to the drastic changes of the plant and animal life over the same period.

Further research would be done, said Govender, and should occur within the next year or so.

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