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Researchers discover the remains of a whale… inside another whale

No, it’s not the plot for a whale-themed reboot of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but it’s just about as crazy.

Back in 2010, German researchers on a dig in the aptly named ‘Valley of Whales’ site in Cairo, Egypt, uncovered the skeleton of a Basilosaurus isis

Since then they’ve been studying the contents of the site, and their findings have been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers also studied the contents of the Basilosaurus, which is an ancient whale-like creature that roamed the seas over 35 million years ago in the late Eocene period.

The Basilosaurus is distinct from other ancient sea creatures due to its pointed incisors, sharp cheek teeth and bones. It’s the kind of creature you wouldn’t want to run into on your evening swim.

During the excavation of the site, researchers also found the remains of sharks, large fish bones, and many bones from Dorudon atrox, a smaller species of ancient whale.

Skeletons of Basilosaurus Isis and Durudon Atrox from Wadi Al Hitan (Image: PLOS ONE)

At first the research team thought that the Basilosaurus may have scavenged the fish, however, the size of the prey and bite-marks led them to another conclusion.

The Dorudon atrox specimens were children, not yet grown past drinking their mother’s milk, so were too small to be the target prey for a full-grown Basilosaurus.

Bite marks on the prey skulls also suggest predatory behaviour rather than scavenging – predators target the head for quick kills.

That led the Berlin-based research team to one conclusion: the fish, sharks and juvenile D. atrox were leftovers from the Basilosaurus’ previous meal.

They propose that Basilosaurus was a top apex predator that hunted and ate its prey alive, rather than scavenging for scraps.

“Our observations, the first direct evidence of diet in Basilosaurus isis, confirm a predator-prey relationship of the two most frequently found fossil whales in Wadi Al Hitan, B. isis and D. atrox,” write the researchers.

Head researcher Manja Voss and her team compare the Basilosaurus to a modern-day apex predator: the killer whale.

Killer whales are also toothed apex predators that feed on smaller whales and “frequently hunt humpback whale calves during the calving season”.

The authors of the study hypothesise that the Wadi Al Hitan site in Cairo, Egypt, was a whale calving site for Dorudon, making it the ideal hunting spot for Basilosaurus during the late Eocene period.

It’s time to exchange the idiom, “it’s a dog eat dog world” for a more scientifically accurate one – “it’s a whale eat whale world”.

[Feature image by Thomas Kelley]

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