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Ancient sea bed becomes home to fossil museum 

Published online 26 January 2016

The deserts of an ancient ocean become home to the Middle East’s first climate change museum.

Louise Sarant

Taking centre stage in the museum is an 18-metre-long Basilosauris Isis.
Taking centre stage in the museum is an 18-metre-long Basilosauris Isis.
© Gabriel Mikhail
Forty million years ago, Wadi El Hitan, a seemingly infinite stretch of sand flats, sandstone hills and buttes, was vastly different. 

The 200-square-kilometre UNESCO World Heritage site was the sea bed of the central Tethys Sea, a body of water that existed some 200 million years ago, its coastline extending from Alexandria down to Luxor. The highly nutritious waters of the Tethys Sea had made it a favoured roaming spot for ancient marine monsters like the Basilosaurus Isis, a 37 million-year-old powerful whale with a 15 to 20 metre long body and sharp teeth, and the five-metre-long Dorundon Atrox whale, believed to be the ancestor of all modern whales. 

The skulls, and sometimes intact skeletons, of those monumental sea creatures, previously submerged by millions of years of sediments, have slowly come to the surface, thanks to the sustained winds of the western desert. 

A heritage site since 2005, it has attracted tourists in droves. The reserve’s two-kilometre pathway showcases the rare bones of whales, sharks and turtles. Now the site hosts a new stunning structure: the Middle East's first Fossils and Climate Change Museum, one of the world's few museums to focus on climate change. 

The museum boasts a round earth-colored structure, its design native to Wadi El Hitan, capped by a dome. It is built partially underground to fit seamlessly into the surrounding natural landscape and help conserve fossils in a cooler environment, according to Gabriel Mikhail, an eco-architect who has worked on several Natural Parks' infrastructure across Egypt.

“It makes sense to have this museum in Wadi El Hitan, rather than in Cairo, because you can have a firsthand impression of the tremendous modifications climate change has had locally by seeing shells and fossils encrusted in the middle of the barren desert.” 

Visible layers of sedimentation scarring the flanks of the surrounding limestone hills bear witness to the changing seawater levels across different geological eras. “Climate change should be witnessed in the field,” adds Mikhail, “this is when it becomes instrumental and can raise awareness.”

The museum is home to various fossils of plants such as mangroves, corals and watermelons, and animals such as whales, sharks, dolphins, crocodiles and the complete skeleton of a leopard. All of the samples originated from Wadi El Hitan, Siwa, the Qattara Depression, Sinai, Qusur El Arab and the nearby Wadi El Rayan. 

In the central exhibition space lies the complete fossil of an 18-metre-long male Basilosauris Isis discovered in May 2015, only seven kilometres away from its current resting place. The cast of the female Basilosaurus fossil sits beside the male skeleton - gigantic heads and massive jaws propped up on an elevated bed of sand.

What makes the Basilosaurus remarkable is its body, equipped with two tiny yet perfectly-shaped hind legs. “Basilosaurus was the first archaic whale found to have fully developed hind limbs with a knee, ankle, foot and toes,” explains Philip Gingerich, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Michigan who originally discovered the fossils. “This was a surprise since modern whales no longer have anything more than rudiments of pelvic bones.” 

The evolution of whales

The discovery gave further support to a theory that whales evolved from land mammals. 

In 1989, during one of his field trips to Wadi El Hitan, Gingerich and his team discovered a knee on a fully aquatic Basilosaurus skeleton – with complete pelvis and leg, ankle, foot and toe bones. There are 11 million years separating Basilosaurus from Pakicetus inachus, the semiaquatic ancestor he had discovered in Pakistan in 1978, and Gingerich could not comprehend why Basilosaurus still bore a vestige of a leg, since the pelvises did not connect to the backbone and the feet were too small compared to the size of its body. 

A subsequent discovery in 2000 confirmed that whales are descendants from the mammalian order Artiodactyla, which includes modern cows, sheep, deers and hippos. He went on to publish extensively on the evolution of whales and on their shared ancestry with early artiodactyls.

Mohamed Sameh, Wadi El Hitan's chief geologist, developed a comprehensive management plan for the site in 2000. He also convinced the Italian government, through the Egyptian Italian Cooperation Programme (EIECP), to invest 3.5 million EGP (US$450,000) in the construction of the new museum. The Egyptian Ministry of Environment and the UNDP provided additional technical support. 

The 70 to 100 complete or fragmented fossils that can be seen inside the vault have been curated by Sameh to highlight how climate change has modified Wadi El Hitan and Gebel Qattrani's geology and landscape, between the Eocene and the Oligocene eras, and today. 

According to Sameh, the fossils of mangrove trees are evidence that 40 million years ago, the area was a subtropical and coastal marine environment characterized by high mean temperature and warm waters. During the Oligocene era, a lush tropical forest progressively covered the area until temperatures dropped. Ice accumulated on the poles, which spurred the Tethys Sea to shrink and recede northwards to the Mediterranean. 

“We give this example to visitors to illustrate that if global warming continues unabated, we may very well witness a reversal of that entire process,” he explains. 

According to Gingerich, the in situ fossils and climate change museum provides “a perfect opportunity to educate people about geological, evolutionary, environmental and climate changes, and failure to reflect those massive modifications would have wasted an educational opportunity.”