The Valley of the Whales
by Lara Iskander
There is another even more ancient Egypt that is known to very few people. The Fayoum area contains some of the best preserved paleontological sites in the world one of which is Wadi Hitan or the Valley of Whales. This is a remote valley in the Western Desert of Egypt. At 150 kilometers southwest of Cairo, the valley is located near the Al-Katrani mountain range, a well known and valuable geological site for its rare vertebrate fossils and mega-fossils.
The Valley of Whales, also known as Zeuglodon Valley, lies within the boundaries of the Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area (WRPA), about eighty kilometers from Fayoum City. WRPA was created in 1989, and lies in the vicinity of a series of natural hot springs and two lakes created in the 1970s from excess agricultural water channeled from the nearby Lake Karun (Qarun).
There is considerable evidence which indicates that the basin of Wadi Hitan was submerged in water some 40 to 50 million years ago. At that time, the so-called Tethys Sea reached far south of the existing Mediterranean. The Tethys Sea is assumed to have retreated north and over the years deposited thick sediments of sandstone and limestone visible in rock formations in Wadi Hitan.
Today, the area is occupied by numerous excavation sites of whales, sharks, petrified mangrove bushes, a wide variety of fossil plants and various other remains of the prehistoric sea. One is bound to come across petrified corals, shark teeth and fossil remains scattered all over the valley. The landscapes are just as impressive and amazing. The valley lies in the midst of an attractive and distinctive desert landscape of wind-eroded rock platforms surrounded by sand dunes and hills. Hundreds of buried fossil skeletons that have been lying trapped for millennia in sandstone formations of the ancient sea are being exposed by the wind as well as the archaeological works.
The revealed fossils are mainly those of ancient whales from the earliest types which are now extinct; the Zeuglodon or Basilosaurus whale. Nevertheless, the precise reason so many ancient whales fossils of this type are located there is yet unclear. This unique valley is also characteristic for its varied species of desert plants, numerous types of reptiles, migrant birds, and wild mammals such as the white deer, the Egyptian deer, fennec fox, red fox and many others.
However, the worldwide recognized value of the site stems from the abundance and exceptional concentration of skeletons, the quality of its fossils, and their natural preserved setting in an attractive and protected landscape. The ancient and rich collection of whale fossils in Wadi Hitan demonstrates an important element and proof of the evolution of the whales from land animals to a marine existence. Hundreds of whale fossils have been exposed over the years. The site contains over 390 known whale skeletons of five different varieties.
Geological studies have been carried out in the area since the 1800's. The first skeletons of Basilosaurus were found around 1830 but were never collected due to the difficult accessibility to the site at that time. At first, it was thought to be a huge marine reptile, and hence was called the Basilosaurus meaning King Lizard. It was only later on that the species were identified as whales which at a certain point in history, moved easily between land and sea. The whale site and fossils at Wadi Hitan clearly portray the forms and modes of life during that transitional phase representing one of the major stories of mammal evolution: the emergence of the whale as an ocean-going mammal from a previous life as a land-based animal. In 1989, a research team led by D. Gingerich had found that the whales retained useless legs, feet, and toes representing rear legs that were later lost in the evolution cycle. Many of the whale skeletons are in good condition as they have been well preserved in the rock formations. Semi-complete skeletons are found in the valley in-situ and in some cases, even stomach contents are sometimes preserved.
Despite more than 100 years of studying this area, no complete restoration of a Basilosaurus has ever been made. This has been finally changed due to the recent discovery of a complete 18 meter-long whale skeleton. Paleontologist Philip D. Gingerich of University of Michigan still leads a field research group excavating in Wadi Hitan. In April 2005, D. Gingerich and colleagues of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency announced the successful excavation of the first complete and well-preserved skeleton of a Basilosaurus, the whale resembling a giant sea snake. It is intended to ship the 40 million year old fossil to Michigan in order to complete studies and preserve it, after which it will be returned and exhibited in Egypt.
This discovery could reveal the mystery behind the huge concentration of Basilosaurus fossils in the valley and possibly explain how the whale swam and the transitional phase from land-based animals to ocean mammals. Over the years, researches have found that the excavated skeletons show evidence of the last stages of evolution from land animals to a marine existence; the loss of the rear limbs and an alteration to the typical body form of modern whales while retaining certain primitive aspects of skull and tooth structure.
The field work and studies carried out on whales of Wadi Hitan is sponsored by the National Geographic Society and by the University of Michigan. When taken as a whole, the entire Fayoum area hosts some of the most exceptional geological sites in the world which are certain to continue revealing important scientific discoveries and as a consequence, turning some of its sites to open-air geological museum. The WRPA covering a total area of 1,759 square km along with the South of Sinai enjoy some of the highest number of visitors of any protected area in Egypt; around 150,000 people visit it each year. It is evident that the touristic value of Wadi Hitan is bound to increase as an open air museum while more effort should be directed in attempt to avoid any threat to the survival of the site.
Limiting the access of 4 wheel vehicles to certain areas is essential in order to avoid severe loss of fossil remains. In addition, protection against natural threats of wind erosion after revealing fossils is necessary. Such threats to the natural heritage of the area need to be taken into consideration in order to ensure the long term survival of the remote and unspoiled character of the site.
In 1998 the Egyptian and Italian governments initiated a conservation and development project to support the Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area through which environmental and development agencies provide guidelines and strategies essential to the sustainable management of protected areas. Today, Wadi Hitan has been turned into a protected area administered by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) and is being developed as a national park by the Italian-Egyptian cooperative program. The valley has also been added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2005 for its unique natural beauty and scientific significance; an important step towards its preservation.