17 million years ago, a beaked whale found itself swimming in a river heading inland in modern day Kenya. This whale is the only one ever found so far inland. It is helping paleontologists figure out exactly when the elevation of East Africa began changing.

When the beaked whale fossil was discovered in the 20th century, it was 740 kilometers inland and 620 meters above sea level in Kenya’s desert region.

Louis L. Jacobs, a vertebrate paleontologist at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, explains what the area looked like 17 million years ago and what happened next.

“The whale was stranded up river at a time when east Africa was at sea level and was covered with forest and jungle,” Jacobs said. “As that part of the continent rose up, that caused the climate to become drier and drier. So over millions of years, forest gave way to grasslands. Primates evolved to adapt to grasslands and dry country. And that’s when — in human evolution — the primates started to walk upright.”

The whale, identified as a Turkana ziphiid, should have been swimming in the open ocean. This whale was probably disoriented and began swimming upriver on the ancient Anza river, which flowed in a southeast direction into the Indian Ocean. Millions of years later, its remains helped researchers perform one of the most difficult tasks. Figuring out ancient land elevation.

“It’s rare to get a paleo-elevation,” Jacobs said. That’s an understatement. Jacobs knows of only one other instance of it happening in East Africa. From a lava flow.

An Elusive Fossil

This research almost didn’t happen. The beaked whale fossil was first discovered back in 1964 by J.G. Mead. For more than 30 years, the fossil sat in storage. Nobody knew where exactly it was.

Jacobs spent the better part of these 30 years looking for it. In 2011, he finally found it at Harvard University and returned it to the National Museums of Kenya.

It’s incredible how an errant whale 17 million years ago was discovered in a desert region in 1964, and is helping researchers today understand more about how we evolved.

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