Glossary update: Basilosaurus

Relating to our last blog post “‘Walking Whales’ in the Wadi Al-Hitan,” touching on the ancient evolutionary predecessors of modern whales, we’ve updated our Glossary to reflect on the reference to the Basilosaurus (aka Zeuglodon, Hydrarchos) fossil unearthed in America in the mid-nineteenth century, embedded in the following passage from Chapter 104 of Moby-Dick, “The Fossil Whale”:

But by far the most wonderful of all cetacean relics was the almost complete vast skeleton of an extinct monster, found in the year 1842, on the plantation of Judge Creagh, in Alabama. The awe-stricken credulous slaves in the vicinity took it for the bones of the fallen angels. The Alabama doctors declared it a huge reptile, and bestowed upon it the name of Basilosaurus. But some specimen bones of it being taken across the sea to Owen, the English Anatomist, it turned out that the alleged reptile was a whale, though of a departed species. A significant illustration of the face, again and again, repeated in this book, the the skeleton of a whale furnishes but little clue to the shape of his fully invested body. So Owen rechristened the monster Zeuglodon; and in his paper read before the London Geological Society, pronounced it, in substance, one of the most extraordinary creatures which the mutations of the globe have blotted out of existence.

Ishmael’s report on the curious history of this “most wonderful of all cetacean relics” is not the most accurate, so we invite you to read the fruits of our research on the subject here.


“Sketch of a Basilosaurus skeleton.” Image credit: Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of Natural History

“Walking Whales” in the Wadi Al-Hitan

Roughly 150 km. (93 mi.) south of Cairo, Egypt, behind the Garet Gohannam (roughly translated “the mountain of hell,” apparently for the eerie red light that sometimes seems to emanate from the formation) there spans a region of the Saharan desert known as the Wadi Al-Hitan (Arabic: وادي الحيتان, meaning “Whale Valley”).


(AP Photo / Thomas Hartwell)

The first fossilized remains of ancient whales were uncovered here in the winter of 1902, but the site became of increasing interest to paleontologists and fossil collectors toward the end of the twentieth century, as vehicles capable of traversing the remote, unmarked desert expanse bounding the Wadi Al-Hitan became more commonplace. In the summer of 2005, the place was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site owing to the concentration there of one particular fossil record, that of the Archaeoceti: a paraphyletic taxonomic group most notable for containing specimen of primitive cetaceans featuring the long, sleek bodies and fore flippers like the whales we know today but also hind legs and toes, indicating the evolutionary transition of the whale from a land-based mammal to an exclusively aquatic creature. As described on the UNESCO webpage devoted to the site:

Wadi Al-Hitan, Whale Valley, in the Western Desert of Egypt, contains invaluable fossil remains of the earliest, and now extinct, suborder of whales, Archaeoceti. These fossils represent one of the major stories of evolution: the emergence of the whale as an ocean-going mammal from a previous life as a land-based animal. This is the most important site in the world for the demonstration of this stage of evolution. It portrays vividly the form and life of these whales during their transition. The number, concentration and quality of such fossils here is unique, as is their accessibility and setting in an attractive and protected landscape. The fossils of Al-Hitan show the youngest archaeocetes, in the last stages of losing their hind limbs. Other fossil material in the site makes it possible to reconstruct the surrounding environmental and ecological conditions of the time.


By Ana Claudia Rocha e Charbel Nino, Artigo da scielo (Wikimedia Commons)

In January 2016, at an estimated cost of 2 billion euros (2.17 billion dollars) provided by an Italian grant, the Egyptian government announced the opening of the Wadi Al-Hitan Fossil and Climate Change Museum, developed in an effort to boost tourism to the region after security concerns increased in the wake the 2011 popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak. As reported by Nour Youssef of, the museum’s opening was distinctly militarized:

Security concerns were palpable as media crews toured the new museum at the desert Valley of the Whales […] Dozens of heavily-armed military officers in black balaclavas stood guard alongside plainclothes policemen, poorly disguised in local Bedouin dress […] short enough to reveal their uniforms underneath.

If the museum does bring increased tourism to the Wadi Al-Hitan, then it will be seen whether that boon comes at the expense of one of the unique facets of the landscape that was noted by Stefan Geens – a traveler, photographer, and writer currently residing in Sweden (follow his current doings here) – who was exploring Cairo and its environs two years after the Wadi Al-Hitan was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. By then a road already led to the site, and paths had been constructed connecting mounds containing the partially disinterred remains of the archaeoceti, but the site still retained a uniquely undeveloped aspect.

Whale Valley has long been a semi-secret, inaccessible to all but the determined adventurer (or vandal). You’d have to hire a couple of sturdy 4WDs and drive through the dunes, aiming for a specific coordinate. […] [T]his year a road was built to it, guards were posted and the area cordoned off. For me, this meant it was time to pursue some of the best paleotourism this side of Jurassic Park.

The easiest way there was to hire a car and a driver who knew where we were going. It cost us $120 for the whole day, divided by me and three co-travellers, friends I had rustled into going along.

The route to Whale Valley took us through the heart-shaped El Fayyum, a fertile depression first irrigated by the ancient Egyptians, and where farm technology still owes much to that time. In El Fayyum we also picked up an escort of army recruits, as we had an American in our posse and the area is described as “restless”, whatever that means — the running joke among expats is that the escorts are the ROI Americans get on their billion-dollar aid packages to Egypt.


(AP Photo / Thomas Hartwell)

Whale Valley itself is unlike anything I’ve seen before. The landscape is windswept; rounded bulbs of harder stone jut out of fine yellow sand, and every so often a low mound is crowned with a whale’s fossilized spine, all in a jumble, unless it’s been reconstituted by passing paleontologists.

I’ve never seen fossils so accessible or so close up in their natural environment: Most of the site hasn’t been excavated, so you really get to experience the sense of excitement paleontologists must feel when they first chance upon a new specimen, just lying there. All my previous encounters with objects paleontological were in museums. Whale Valley is a completely different experience.

That’s not to say you get to rummage about by yourself while there. A friendly but unobtrusive park ranger walked with us for nearly two hours, pointing out the most interesting places. There is now a cordoned path through the park, and the ranger was adamant we not veer off it. We were happy to oblige.

(The entirety of Geens’ doumentation of his visit to the Wadi Al-Hitan is archived on his personal blog here.)

A few short months after Geens’ visit to the Wadi Al-Hitan, the site made international news after Egyptian authorities claimed an envoy of Belgian diplomats had driven over one of the fossil sites, damaging the remains. Geens even updated his blog post to reflect the fact, being a native Belgian himself. Whether or not increased publicity will invite further instances such as these (the Belgians, by the way, denied responsibility for damaging any fossils), one may be assured that in its original design, the Wadi Al-Hitan Fossil and Climate Change Museum was designed to honor and preserve the primitive beauty of the once oceanic desert. Youssef’s report on the museum’s opening contains this remarkable interaction with the its architect, Gabriel Mikhail:

“When you build something somewhere so beautiful and unique, it has to blend in with its surrounding … or it would be a crime against nature,” […] Mikhail said, pointing to the surrounding sand dunes. “We are confident visitors will come,” he added, smiling.


(AP Photo / Thomas Hartwell)

Take care when making invitations to the walking whales.