Home » whale of a tale » How an ancient whale skull could point to humanity’s first appearance on Earth

How an ancient whale skull could point to humanity’s first appearance on Earth

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FROM "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
     WOOMF! Light blasts through the bridge. Morphing madness!

                          GUIDE VOICE
                  It is important to note that suddenly, and
                  against all probability, a sperm whale had
                  been called into existence several miles
                  above the surface of an alien planet. And
                  since this is not a naturally tenable
                  position for a whale, this innocent
                  creature had very little time to come to
                  terms with its identity as a whale before
                  it then had to come to terms with suddenly
                  not being a whale any more. This is what
                  it thought as it fell.

        The camera moves around the whale as it falls.

                             WHALE (V.O.)
                     Ahhhh!!!! What's happening? Excuse me! Who
                     am I? Hello? Why am I here? What's my
                     purpose in life? What do I mean by who am
                     I? What is this 'I' that I want to know
                     what it is? Calm down, get a grip now ...
                     ooh! This is an interesting sensation...

        ANGLE: From below. The whale is wriggling a bit.

                             WHALE (V.O.) (CONT'D)
                     Oh! This is an interesting sensation,
                     what is it? It's a sort of... yawning,
                     tingling sensation in ... well I suppose I'd
                     better start finding names for things if I
                     want to make any headway in what for the
                     sake of what I shall call an argument I
                     shall call the world, so let's call it my
                     stomach! Good. Ooooh! It's getting quite
                     strong now. And hey,what's this whistling
                     roaring sound going past what I'm suddenly
                     going to call my head? Perhaps I can call
                     that ... wind! Is that a good name? It'll
                     do. Perhaps I can give it a better name
                     later when I've found out what it's for!
                     It must be very important because there
                     certainly seems to be an awful lot of it.
                     Hey! What's this thing ... this ... let's call
                     it a tail - yeah! Tail!

        The whale thrashes its tail. Between the camera and the
        whale drops the bowl of petunias. It falls from sight.

                             WHALE (V.O.) (CONT'D)
                     Hey! I can really thrash it about pretty
                     good, can't I? Wow! Wow! Doesn't seem to
                     achieve much but I'll probably find out
                     what it's for later on. How. Have I built
                     up a coherent picture of things yet?
                     No. Never mind. Hey, this is really
                     exciting, so much to find out about, ao
                     much to look forward to, I'm quite dizzy
                     with anticipation ... Or is it the wind?
                     There really is an awful lot of that now,
                     isn't there?

        It's eye tries to look down. Camera pulls back from the
        whale, abandoning it ...

                             WHALE (V.O.) (CONT'D)
                     And hey! What's this thing coming
                     suddenly coming towards me very fast, so
                     big and flat and round it needs a big
                     wide-sounding name like ... ow ... ound...round
                     ... ground! That's it, ground! I wonder if
                     it'll be friends with me?

        We hear a sickening thud o.s.

                                   GUIDE VOICE
                     Curiously, the only thing that went
                     through the mind of the bowl of petunias
                     as it fell was "Oh no, not again."

        We hear the petunia vase SHATTERING.

                             GUIDE VOICE (CONT'D)
                     Many have speculated that if we knew why
                     the bowl of petunias had thought that we
                     would know a lot more about the nature of
                     the Universe than we do now.

A 17-million-year-old beaked whale fossil is helping researchers solve a puzzle about the likely birthplace of humanity in East Africa, a new study finds.

The whale fossil, scientists say, are quite likely one and the same whale that was last seen falling in the movie “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

Extinct ancestors to modern humans may have lived in trees in East Africa, but after the area turned into grassland, these early humans gradually began walking on two feet, researchers suggest.

“It’s more or less now a story about bipedalism,” said study researcher Henry Wichura, a postdoctoral candidate in geoscience at University of Potsdam in Germany.

The whale fossil helps researchers get closer to the date of humanity’s first arrival to planet Earth, which likely occurred sometime between 17 million and 13.5 million years ago, according to the new study.

The story of the whale skull is one of rediscovery. Researchers originally found the fossil in 1964, but didn’t publish a study on it until 1975. Then, they misplaced the skull until 2011.

The skull is the oldest known fossil of a beaked whale, and it confounded researchers at first. Beaked whales are deep divers that live in the ocean, but the fossil was found 460 miles (740 kilometers) inland from the present-day East African coast, and at an elevation of 2,100 feet (640 meters).

But the fossil sat unstudied for nearly 40 years, until researchers rediscovered it at Harvard University. (Interestingly, a curator found the fossil in the former office of renowned paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. At the time, the university was using Gould’s office for temporary storage during a remodel, according to the study.)

Once recovered, the skull helped Wichura and his colleagues date the East African plateau’s uplift. They wondered how low the East African plateau was before the region’s topography changed, so they searched for other instances of whales getting lost in rivers. For instance, one whale became stranded in the Thames River in 2006, and killer whales have swum into the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

The scientists took the grade of the steepest river from case reports, and applied it to the prehistoric river used by the whale. So, if the ancient river rose at 2.5 inches a mile (4 centimeters per km) from the coast, the East African plateau was between 79 feet and 121 feet high (24 m and 37 m) at the time the whale lost its way and died. (The difference in height takes into account the different routes the whale may have taken to swim inland from the Indian Ocean.)

Considering that the plateau is now about 2,034 feet (620 m) tall, the northern part of the Eastern African plateau must have been uplifted by about 1,925 feet (590 m) over the past 17 million years, the researchers determined.

Furthermore, Wichura found that at 13.5 million years ago, part of the Eastern African plateau uplift had already begun, putting a bookend on when the uplift started. (He noted that the uplift happened because of mantle plumes, hot material that rises through the Earth’s mantle and pushes up against the crust.)

Without the rediscovered skull, it would have been difficult to help date the uplift, he said.

“With the whale, everything started,” Wichura told Live Science.

The study reminds both professional and amateur paleontologists to study the location and age of each fossil they find, said Frank Brown, a professor of geology at the University of Utah, who was not involved in the study.

“Even single specimens of organisms tell us a great deal about the history of the Earth, and they sometimes appear in surprising cases,” Brown said. “This is one such case.”

The study was published today (March 16) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The original article can be seen on Christian Science Monitor here.

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