Whale Fossil Found in Kitchen Counter

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May 5, 2009—After a factory had found a 40-million-year-old whale fossil in a limestone kitchen counter, researchers investigated the stone's fossil-packed Egyptian quarry, which could shed light on the origins of African wildlife.

Video by Public Television's Wild Chronicles, from National Geographic Mission Programs

Unedited Transcription

AT THE F.M.S. STONECUTTING YARD IN NORTHERN ITALY BLOCKS OF EXOTIC MARBLE AND COLORFUL GRANITE ARE IMPORTED FROM ACROSS THE WORLD.

HERE THEY ARE CUT INTO SLABS DESTINED FOR HIGH-END KITCHEN AND BATHROOM COUNTERTOPS.

NOT TOO LONG AGO THE MASONS SLICED A MASSIVE BLOCK OF EGYPTIAN LIMESTONE MUCH LIKE A LOAF OF BREAD.

BUT THE SLABS COULDNT BE USED FOR COUNTERTOPS -- THEY WERE RIDDLED WITH WHAT APPEARED TO BE FOSSILIZED BONES.

"BEING MASONS WE WERE IGNORANT OF THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DISCOVERY WE HAD MADE" SAYS SUPERVISOR RICARDO FRANCIONI.

BUT THEY KNEW ENOUGH TO CALL IN SOME ITALIAN EXPERTS WHO DETERMINED THEY HAD INADVERTENTLY CREATED AN ALMOST PERFECT CROSS SECTION OF AN ANCIENT WHALE.

IT LIVED IN EGYPT 40 MILLION YEARS AGO.

FINDING ANCIENT WHALES FROM EGYPT, A COUNTRY THATS 95 PERCENT DESERT, MIGHT SEEM UNUSUAL --- BUT IT ISNT.

FOR DECADES, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC GRANTEE PHILIP GINGERICH HAS BEEN DIGGING UP WHALE BONES NEAR THE OASIS OF FAYOUM.

DURING THE TIME OF THE DINOSAURS THE AREA WAS COVERED BY THE OCEAN AND IS NOW FILLED WITH MARINE FOSSILS.

STILL, GINGERICH THE PREMIER EXPERT IN EGYPTIAN WHALES WAS INTRIGUED WHEN HE WAS NOTIFIED ABOUT THE DISCOVERY. SO GINGERICH AND EGYPTIAN AUTHORITIES DROVE OUT TO VISIT THEM IN PERSON.

THEY DETERMINED THAT ANY POTENTIAL WHALE BONES WOULD BE EMBEDDED DEEP IN THE LAYERS OF LIMESTONE ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO DISCOVER EXCEPT BY CHANCE.

HOWEVER -- THEY FOUND SOMETHING ELSE OF INTEREST.

THE QUARRIES ALSO CONTAINED COLUMNS OF RED STONE FROM A LATER PERIOD AFTER THE WATER AND WHALES HAD DISAPPEARED. "SUDDENLY IT DAWNED ON ME THAT SHOULD HAVE BONES IN IT, THERE SHOULD BE ANIMALS PRESERVED IN THAT SEDIMENT TOO. SO I WENT OVER TO THE BASE OF THE FIRST OUTCROP, GOT DOWN ON MY HANDS AND KNEES AND THERE WERE BONES ALL OVER THE PLACE."

SOME SAMPLES WERE REMOVED FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC RESEARCHERS GREGG GUNNELL AND ELLEN MILLER WERE ABLE TO TEASE OUT A PILE OF SMALL MAMMAL BONES FROM THE ROCK. THEY REALIZED THESE LITTLE JAWS AND LEGS HAVE AN AMAZING SIGNIFICANCE.

THEY MAY BE THE REMAINS OF SOME OF THE FIRST MAMMALS TO MIGRATE FROM ASIA TO THE AFRICAN CONTINENT.

SEE WAY BACK AS LAND MASSES WERE SHIFTING AFRICA WAS AN ISOLATED ISLAND DRIFTING TOWARD EURASIA.

THEN ABOUT 20 MILLION YEARS AGO AS SEA LEVELS DROPPED THE TWO CONTINENTS WERE JOINED.

"FOR THE FIRST TIME YOU GET A LAND BRIDGE BETWEEN EURASIA AND AFRICA. AND AT THAT TIME, YOU GET A WHOLE ARRAY OF DIFFERENT TYPES OF ANIMALS FLOODING INTO AFRICA. AND THE DEPOSITS HERE PRESERVE THE REMAINS OF THOSE ANIMALS, THE FIRST IMMIGRANTS FROM EURASIA INTO AFRICA."

EGYPT WAS LIKELY ONE OF THE POINTS OF ENTRY FOR THAT FLOOD OF ASIAN ANIMALS.

AND THEY EVOLVED OVER MILLIONS OF YEARS TO BECOME SOME OF THE ICONIC ANIMALS OF AFRICA.

ZEBRAS .

RHINOCEROS

WILDEBEEST

COULD THE QUARRY PROVIDE CLUES FROM THAT PERIOD?

TO FIND OUT NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PARTIALLY FUNDED AN EXPEDITION TO THE QUARRIES TO COLLECT MORE EVIDENCE.

THE TEAM INCLUDED MILLER AND GUNNELL ALONG WITH BILL SANDERS AND AHMED AL-BARKOOKI OF CAIRO UNIVERISTY.

"I DIDNT FIND ANYTHING OVER THERE. WHAT DO YOU HAVE OVER HERE? I DIDNT FIND ANYTHING IN HERE YET."

THEY CHIP AWAY AT SAMPLES.

ITS HARD AND DUSTY WORK.

"INSIDE THE LITTLE ROCKS WE LOOK FOR ANY SIGN THAT THERES ANY KIND OF BONE OR TEETH OR ANYTHING LIKE THAT AND IF WE FIND SOME IDEA THIS IS GOING TO CONTAIN BONE WE TAKE IT BACK TO THE LAB AND WE PROCESS IT THERE."

THE BONES ARE OF SMALLER MAMMALS LIKE RATS AND BATS. THEYLL HELP THE SCIENTISTS ESTABLISH WHAT LIFE WAS LIKE HERE ALL THOSE MILLIONS OF YEARS AGO.

"THE SMALL ANIMALS ARE REALLY IMPORTANT BECAUSE THEYRE VERY SENSITIVE TO TEMPERATURE AND CLIMATE. THEY DONT MOVE VERY FAR DURING THEIR LIFETIME SO THEYRE A VERY GOOD INDICATOR OF RELATIVE HUMIDITY, RAINFALL, THINGS LIKE THAT."

THE FINDINGS MAY CONFIRM THAT THIS BARREN DESERT WAS A DIFFERENT PLACE WHEN THE MAMMALS STARTED TO CROSS FROM ASIA.

IT WAS A LUSH TROPICAL DELTA --WITH A SERIES OF LARGE RIVER SYSTEMS -- IT WAS A TEMPTING NEW HOME FOR ANIMALS ON THE MOVE.

WHEN THEY FIRST ARRIVED, THESE ANIMALS LOOKED VERY DIFFERENT FROM WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE TODAY. BUT ON THE WIDE OPEN PLAINS, REMOVED AND ISOLATED FROM THEIR NOW DISTANT ASIAN ANCESTORS, THEY BEGAN TO EVOLVE.

THE GIRAFFES NECK GREW LONGER, THE ZEBRA DEVELOPED ITS STRIPES. THEY BECAME WHAT MANY THINK OF TODAY AS UNIQUELY AFRICAN ANIMALS, NOT REALIZING THAT THEY HAVE ASIAN ROOTS.

THE RESEARCHERS HAVENT FOUND ANY MAJOR FOSSILS AT THE QUARRIES YET, BUT THEYRE GATHERING MORE PIECES OF A FASCINATING PUZZLE.

"ACTUALLY EVERY FOSSIL HAS GOT ITS OWN IMPORTANCE. ITS NOT ONLY THAT WE FIND ONE FOSSIL BUT TO INTEGRATE THE INFORMATION TOGETHER TO GET THE BIGGER PICTURE."

"EVERY DAY YOU COME OUT AND YOU WORK AS HARD AS YOU CAN AND YOU HAVE TO BE OPTIMISTIC IF YOURE A PALEONTOLOGIST. YOU HAVE TO ALSO BE LUCKY. AND EVERY DAY YOU COME OUT AND YOU THINK THIS IS THE DAY THIS IS THE DAY THIS IS THE DAY AND SOME DAYS, ITS RIGHT!"

THIS IS EXACTLY WHERE YOU OFTEN FIND THE LITTLE BONES.

AND FOR THESE PALEONTOLOGISTS, THIS WAS JUST ONE OF THOSE PROVERBIAL DAYS.

WHEN AN ACCIDENTAL DISCOVERY IN A LIMESTONE COUNTER-TOP IN ITALY

. LED TO NEW INFORMATION ABOUT THE ANCESTORS OF ICONIC AFRICAN ANIMALS.

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