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Credit: Robert Boessenecker

Monstrous walking whale-thing that looked kinda like an Egyptian god terrorized the seas 43 million years ago

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Aug 30, 2021, 2:17 PM EDT

Ancient Egyptians worshiped many deities, but if anyone back then saw the incarnation of the jackal-headed embalming god Anubis, they would have probably dropped to their knees.

Anubis was a god of the underworld who presided over mummification. The son of blue-skinned Osiris, the Egyptian god of death, and Nepthys, the sister of his wife Isis (relationships in this pantheon can get complicated), he appeared as an anthropomorphic figure with the head of a jackal. Anubis is now often misunderstood as fearsome — and he probably does seem scary to the living — but a prehistoric creature named after him was the real monster.

There would be no humans in Egypt for eons when Phiomicetus anubis existed. Around 43 million years ago, this newly discovered semiaquatic proto-whale, whose skull is an eerie reflection of Anubis, was an apex predator that might as well have been the grim reaper of the deep. It could easily take down a crocodile — another animal the Egyptians deified in the form of the actually ferocious god Sobek. This 1,300-pound beast also preyed on other whale calves and whatever else fit in its terrifying jaws.

Paleontologist Robert Boessenecker of UC Berkeley, who coauthored a study recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, believes this bizarre creature can tell us more about how whales evolved from landlubbers to titans of the sea.


“The only known specimen of Phiomicetus anubis has no limb bones preserved,” he told SYFY WIRE. “Based on close relatives with well-preserved skeletons, P. anubis was likely capable of some moving around on land, perhaps a bit like a seal or sea lion.”

Credit: Robert Boessenecker

What was actually frightening about the god Anubis was that he was the one who would place a dead person’s heart on a scale with the feather of Ma’at, goddess of truth and justice, or the other. Anyone whose heart was heavier than the feather fell into the jaws of the demoness Ammut, who devoured the souls of those who had been evil when they walked the Earth. So you could say that P. anubis has some connection to Anubis through what is thought to have been an Ammut-like appetite. Seals also flap around on land, but can be vicious underwater.

Protocetids, or extinct semi-aquatic whales, had teeth nothing would have wanted to mess with. P. anubis is one of the most ancient of these. The partial skeleton studied by Boessenecker and his team is the only known specimen. Most of the skull, including the right mandible (lower jaw) and part of the left mandible, some teeth, several vertebrae and a few ribs were preserved. It revealed that both the anatomy and feeding habits of protocetid whales varied more than scientists used to think, especially through its skull morphology and teeth.

“P. anubis is pretty interesting, as it seems to have several adaptations for relatively stronger bite force than other protocetids, indicating that even the earliest semiaquatic marine whales were evolving ecologically divergent feeding adaptations,” Boessenecker said.

What makes this proto-whale’s head look something like a jackal’s are the elongated front, sides and top of its skull, including where its upper and lower mandibles meet. The body plan that was determined from the partial skeleton (as illustrated by Boessenecker above) was something like a seal or a sea lion with flipper-like feet but had legs still capable of wandering around on the shore. This is why it was determined to be descended from a common ancestor of all whales and most, but not all, organisms in that group, which makes it paraphyletic.

P. anubis also had some adaptations that gave it an edge in hunting and feeding. If its huge and powerful jaw muscles had enough bite force to catch crocodiles for dinner, then the third incisors found next to its canines were sure to get its next meal in the jugular. It could probably also kill by ripping sizeable chunks of flesh. Its teeth were also deadly to smaller, faster fish or other sea creatures that would have found it impossible to get away once they were snapped up. They were then moved to the back teeth for chewing before finally being gulped down.

“The third incisor is shared by most mammals (primates like us have only two),” said Boessenecker. “P. anubis had an enlarged or "caniniform" third incisor in comparison to close relatives, which, along with the proportionally larger size of the jaw closing muscles, tells us it had a more powerful bite than other protocetids.”

Maybe it should have been named after soul eater Ammut after all.