Sea Monsters in the Desert? Remains of Cuddly Sea Cow Discovered in Egypt

In 2019, a team of scientists excavating in the scorched sands of ancient Egypt, far from the royal burial zone at Saqqara with its mummified animals and birds, uncovered the remains of a giant creature. Far, not only is distance, but even more so in time, for this prehistoric giant was alive about 40 million years ago.

The Giants of Pre-Terraformed Ancient Egypt

When we read stories of discoveries in ancient Egypt involving animals, they generally include the mummified animal remains of crocodiles, ibis, dogs and millions of cats. Perhaps one creature that nobody, not even in their wildest dreams, would ever associate with ancient Egypt is the sea cow. But you will after reading this.

The now dry desert lands of Saqqara. Who would imagine that same land was once covered in water and home to ancient sea monsters. (Sergey/ Adobe Stock)

The now dry desert lands of Saqqara . Who would imagine that same land was once covered in water and home to ancient sea monsters. ( Sergey/ Adobe Stock)

During the late Eocene, which describes the period between 40 million to 35 million years ago, giant, yet gentle, marine creatures glided through waters that once occupied the space that is today filled with the deserts of Egypt , according to a new study that appeared online this week at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual conference .

In the study Dr. Mohamed Korany Ismail Abdel-Gawad, a lecturer of vertebrate paleontology and supervisor of the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory at Cairo University, details the 2019 discovery of a new Sirenia fossil that represents “the ribs and limb bones of an almost fully grown individual.” Egypt’s eastern desert was home to an ancient sea monster , a long-lost relative of the manatees ( Trichechus), who are often called “dugongs” or “sea cows” after their slow-moving gentle demeanor seen as similar to land-based bovines.

Fragment of a Sirenia rib bone, related to the modern-day sea cow, from the late Eocene found in the Eastern Desert in Egypt. (Mohamed Korany Ismail Abdel-Gawad)

Fragment of a Sirenia rib bone, related to the modern-day sea cow, from the late Eocene found in the Eastern Desert in Egypt. (Mohamed Korany Ismail Abdel-Gawad)

Swimming in the Egyptian Deserts

Manatees are mostly-herbivorous marine mammals. There are four living species which are grouped in the Sirenia order which comprises: the Amazonian manatee, the West Indian manatee, and the West African manatee. A Live Science article about the new discovery explains that similarly to modern whales, the mammalian ancestors of the Sirenia order were originally land-based creatures before they transitioned into the sea. According to a  2012 publication by the University of Michigan , ancient Sirenia once swam in what is today the Western Desert of Egypt.

The 2012 paper explains that Pezosiren portelli is the earliest known Sirenia species. Existing in the middle Eocene of Jamaica, about 50 million years ago, the semiaquatic creature it still had front and hind limbs. But, by the late Eocene, around 40 million years ago, this newfound Sirenia fossil had become completely aquatic with its legs being fully replaced with fins.

The find of Sirenia fossils, of a species related to the modern-day sea cow, dating back millions of years supports the idea that the eastern deserts of Egypt were once a shallow marine environment. (Public domain)

The find of Sirenia fossils, of a species related to the modern-day sea cow, dating back millions of years supports the idea that the eastern deserts of Egypt were once a shallow marine environment. ( Public domain )

A Time When Giants Roamed

Dr. Abdel-Gawad told Live Science that Sirenia fossils date to the Eocene (56 million to 34 million years ago) and Oligocene (34 million to 23 million years ago) in what is today the Fayum area, in the Western Desert, southwest of Cairo. What this new discovery essentially does for science, according to the lead researches, “supports existing evidence” that suggests that the eastern deserts of Egypt were once a shallow marine environment at that time and that these giant herbivorous mammals fed in safer shallow waters, on grasses and shrubs that grew in coastal marine waters and marine wetlands.

The word Eocene is used to define the epoch that lasted from about 56 to 33.9 million years ago. The name comes from the ancient Greek words ἠώς and καινός, referring to the dawn of modern fauna that appeared during this epoch. For now, the scientists digging in the Egyptian desert have discovered the ancestor of the manatee, but goodness knows what they might unearth next. We mustn’t forget that monsters existed during the Eocene.

Many early-whale skeletons have been discovered in Egypt. In 2016, the first ever Basilosaurus complete skeleton was uncovered in Wadi El Hitan, preserved with the remains of its prey. No other place has such large numbers, concentrations or quality of fossils of this kind. On the left: Fossilized remains of Basilosaurus at Wadi El-Hitan. (Mohammed ali Moussa / CC BY-SA 3.0) On the right: A reconstruction of a Basilosaurus. (Dominik Hammelsbruch / CC BY-SA 4.0)Many early-whale skeletons have been discovered in Egypt. In 2016, the first ever Basilosaurus complete skeleton was uncovered in Wadi El Hitan, preserved with the remains of its prey. No other place has such large numbers, concentrations or quality of fossils of this kind. On the left: Fossilized remains of Basilosaurus at Wadi El-Hitan. (Mohammed ali Moussa / CC BY-SA 3.0) On the right: A reconstruction of a Basilosaurus. (Dominik Hammelsbruch / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Many early-whale skeletons have been discovered in Egypt. In 2016, the first ever Basilosaurus complete skeleton was uncovered in Wadi El Hitan, preserved with the remains of its prey. No other place has such large numbers, concentrations or quality of fossils of this kind. On the left: Fossilized remains of Basilosaurus at Wadi El-Hitan. (Mohammed ali Moussa / CC BY-SA 3.0 ) On the right: A reconstruction of a Basilosaurus. (Dominik Hammelsbruch / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Epoch That Generated Our Animal Ancestors

In the ancient volcanically-mineralized waters of the late Eocene, Basilosaurus, a gigantic Eocene whale that measured a phenomenal 15-20 meters (49-66 ft), would have been seen swimming beside the ancient manatee. Basilosaurus represents one of the largest known animals to have ever existed. While our collective imagination of Egypt is usually filled with images of the dry Sahara Desert , it’s important that we peek over the water line of the late Eocene onto the land. During this era, the climate in what is modern-day Egypt was warm and giants roamed, including Eocene mammals such as ancestral camels, pigs, rodents, monkeys, and the  titanothere of the order Perissodactyla, that includes horses, rhinoceroses, and tapirs, all of which have since become extinct.

What this means for us is an impending annoyance whenever we next read of 2,000-year-old mummified monkeys or birds found at Saqqara being descried as “ancient Egyptian animals.” Thanks to the new time scale provided by this recent sea monster discovery, compared with the giants of the Eocene that once occupied Egypt’s Western Desert, these mummified beasts were buried only yesterday.

Top image: A Sirenia fossil, related to the modern-day sea cow, has been discovered in the Egyptian desert, proving that these peaceful marine creatures once swam through the water in what is now fine desert sand. Source: Samantha / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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