National Geographic

Named by one of the few Egyptian women to pursue paleontology, the new fish species swam beside leggy whales 37 million years ago.

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A NEW SPECIES of ancient animal plucked from the sands of Egypt is offering insight into the evolution of one of the most recognizable aquatic groups on Earth: the humble catfish. Unearthed in Wadi Al-Hitan, a dramatic, forbidding desert southwest of Cairo, the fossil catfish has been named Qarmoutus hitanensis, and it would have lived roughly 37 million years ago. At about 6.5 feet long, the creature would have been on the upper end of the catfish size scale, coming close to modern-day behemoths like the Mekong giant catfish in Southeast Asia and the Wels catfish in Europe. (At the opposite end of that scale is the tiny parasitic candiru, which is infamous for legends that it can wiggle its way inside people via some uncomfortable places.) But even though it would be hefty by today’s standards, the Eocene-era creature was just a pint-sized swimmer compared to the valley’s most famous denizens. The arid landscape of Wadi Al-Hitan, which means Valley of the Whales, was once submerged beneath a vast ocean. Among its wind-sculpted sandstone buttes and cliffs, scientists have unearthed a treasure trove of prehistoric whale bones. Hundreds of fossils catch these ancient whales in the act of losing their land-legs and entering the sea. Also buried among them are sharks, crocodiles, rays, turtles, and other seafaring creatures.

Two close views of the fossilized second dorsal spine from the ancient catfish Qarmoutus hitanensis.


Qarmoutus is now the first bony fish recovered from the same layers as the valley’s better-known giants, which may mean the toothed predators saw the meaty catfish as a potenti al snack. “Were catfishes regularly eaten by the famous Basilosaurus isis and Dorudon atrox whales?” wonders Sanaa El-Sayed, the lead author on a study reporting the find, which was published March 1 in PLOS ONE.

In addition to expanding the valley’s marine menagerie, Qarmoutusrepresents an entirely new genus and species, making it an intriguing early branch on the catfish family tree. “Even though the fossil is relatively old in the way we ordinarily think of ages in millions of years, it is still essentially anatomically modern and directly comparable to living catfishes,” says John Lundberg of Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences. “It’s one of the best-preserved and oldest of its family.”