In the western desert of Egypt is a valley known as Wadi al-Hitan. Like some of the other famous valleys in Egypt, such as the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, this valley is a kind of graveyard, but this one is for whales. Not that people buried whales here; rather, the desert preserves the fossils of a wide variety of sea life from millions of years ago, when this region was under a shallow sea. Among the most striking and important fossils at the site are the remains of several different species showing different stages of the evolution of ancient land mammals into the whales we know today.
Wadi al-Hitan is today preserved as a UNESCO site in recognition of both its stark natural beauty and its paleontological significance.
Images: An excavated fossil skeleton of a prehistoric whale, photograph by AhmedMosaad via Wikimedia. Spine and skull of a Dorudon atrox, photograph by Christoph Rohner via Wikimedia. Vertebrae on the desert sands, photograph by Jolybook via Wikimedia.
Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.
Besides being an awesome name for a band, paleolithic Siberian unicorn is an apt description of an animal otherwise known as Elasmotherium.
Elasmotherium was a prehistoric relative of the rhinoceros that ranged across central Asia and eastern Europe. It stood over 2 meters tall at the shoulder and its body was as long as 4.5 meters. Its distinguishing feature was an enormous horn on its face. The exact size and shape of the horn have never been determined, since no horn remains have been found, but the bony basis for the horn can be clearly seen on preserved skulls.
Elasmotherium was long thought to have gone extinct over 350,000 years ago, but recent work on a skull found in Kazakhstan has shown that the animal survived until at least 29,000 years ago. That puts living Elasmotheria in the middle of the upper (more recent) paleolithic (40,000-10,000 years ago). Humans certainly lived alongside them and may have depicted them in cave art.
Some have speculated that Elasmotheria survived even longer and may have been the inspiration for fantastical animals including unicorns, as described by eastern European legends, and the Chinese qilin. It’s impossible to verify such ideas, but they’re fun to think about.
Image: Elasmotherium via Wikimedia (c. 1920; painting; by Heinrich Harder)
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