21-02-2021 by Freddie del Curatolo
Imagine a whale that seventeen million years ago took a wrong turn and ended up in an African river for who knows how many kilometres, ending its adventure in Kenya's Lake Turkana.
A pool of international researchers, led by experts from various universities, in particular Harvard University, which first discovered the fossil of the cetacean in 1964, and Texas University, which managed to reconstruct its history in 2015, will return to Kenya in the coming weeks to continue their research, after the surprising discovery of the fossil remains of the cetacean in the area of Lake Turkana, with a view to better studying the climate changes that led to this incredible event and that could be useful in explaining others in the future.
As well as telling a curious and enigmatic story, the find is of great importance in studies of the changes in the Rift Valley that led to the birth of mankind. The whale, which has not been given a name but seems to belong to the Ziphiidae family (of which there are now 20 species), was stranded in an area 740 km off the current Kenyan coast, at an altitude of 620 metres. Scientists assume that the cetacean made a journey of up to 900 kilometres westwards in the Indian Ocean, unnoticed entering a wide river bed and ending up stranded at an altitude of 23-36 metres above sea level at the time.
Nothing else is known about its journey, and the research team speculates that the whale just 'took a wrong turn' and never made it back. This is not the first case of lost whales, but never before has a cetacean reached so high above sea level.
The whale's remains, the oldest ever found, were found during excavations in the western part of Lake Turkana.
"The whale tells us a lot of things. It tells us the starting point of all that uplift that changed the climate that led to man. It's incredible," explained the leader of the latest expedition, Louis Jacobs, a palaeontologist from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
Some of his colleagues argue that the whale may have stranded along the river at a time when East Africa was at sea level and covered in forest and jungle.
The fossil remains of the whale had been transported to Harvard and only in 1975 did Prof. Patterson manage to bring them back to the National Museum of Kenya, but they were catalogued without much attention, so much so that after Patterson's death, only the obstinacy of a colleague, Prof. Mead, led to the reconnection of the fossils with the previous find, and from there the scenarios opened up that still today turn out to be a story yet to be told.
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