Whale, predator, and desert aren’t exactly three words you expect to find in the same sentence, but it all starts to make more sense when you realize the deadly marine mammal in question is 36 million years old. The discovery of a basilosaurus's skull in the Ocucaje Desert in Peru is evidence of the region’s history, having once been a shallow sea home to primitive sea mammals.
The ancient animal is a basilosaurus, and it was uncovered in 2021 roughly 350 kilometers (215 miles) south of Lima. It joins many primitive remains uncovered in the dunes there but stands out as a remarkably well-preserved specimen.
"This is an extraordinary find because of its great state of preservation," said Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi, head of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Natural History Museum in Lima, to AFP. "This animal was one of the largest predators of its time."
The ocean giant has been nicknamed the “Ocucaje Predator,” a suitably fearsome name for a 17-meter (55-foot) long hunter whose large jaws would’ve hosted some intimidating dentition. It’s these teeth that have led paleontologists to place basilosaurus at the top of the food chain, making it more than qualified to take down fish, sharks, and other archaic whales.
The 36-million-year-old basilosaurus leaves behind a complete skull, representing an exciting opportunity for scientists to learn more about these ancient and impressive predators. Its large and overlapping teeth can now be seen at the Museum of Natural History in Lima where the specimen is on display.
The Ocucaje Desert is something of a playground for paleontologists with a penchant for ancient marine animals. Like a lucky dip sandpit for evolutionarily curious adults, its hidden treasures hail back as far as 42 million years and historical fossil finds have included Miocene era dolphins, sharks, and rare four-legged dwarf whales.
"At that time, the Peruvian sea was warm," said Salas-Gismondi to AFP. "Thanks to this type of fossil, we can reconstruct the history of the Peruvian sea."
“King lizard” is the rough meaning behind the name basilosaurus. While something of a misnomer, (basilosaurus being a mammal, not a lizard) it’s thought they may have moved through the water a little bit like a snake.
Like a snake, that is, with a giant, fanged face.
"It was a marine monster," Reuters reports Salas-Gismondi said. "When it was searching for its food, it surely did a lot of damage.”