By Claire Davenport
ُEgypt is known around the world for its rich ancient history and civilizations, but Hesham Sallam, professor at AUC’s Institute of Global Health and Ecology, is on a mission to show the world just how far back this heritage really goes — over 100 million years, to be more precise. “In Egypt, we have a great heritage of prehistoric life, starting from dinosaur times and going up to the Miocene epoch, which extends from about 23 million to 5.3 million years ago,” he said.
Sallam is the country’s first Egyptian professor of vertebrate paleontology, the study of fossils and ancient life. Before Sallam, fossil digs in Egypt were mostly led by foreign scientists. Motivated by his dream of building an Egyptian school for studying vertebrate paleontology, he pursued his PhD in earth sciences from the University of Oxford.
More than a decade later, he has several students from different universities actively working on vertebrate paleontology research with him. Sallam professed, “I’m very proud of my students because I shared with them my dream of establishing the first Egyptian school for vertebrate paleontology. So it’s now our collective dream.”
Studying the Walking Whale
Currently, Sallam and his team are studying primitive whales in Wadi al-Hitan, a valley in Egypt’s Western Desert in the Fayoum governorate. Among these, one is known by the scientific name Basilosaurus. “The name comes from the Greek words basileus, meaning “king,” and saurus, meaning “lizard,” since early scientists thought it might be a big lizard, but with more discovery, it turned out to be an ancient whale,” he explained. “But the name stuck, so it is the ‘king lizard.’ I would say Basilosaurus is really king of the ancient seas.”
Wadi al-Hitan is a unique area in Egypt known for its well-preserved fossils in rock formations, and the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency has recorded more than 1,500 skeletons from a small site in the region.
Sallam reported that the last time they went into Wadi al-Hitan, he and his team found several bones from ancient whales (more primitive than Basilosaurus), or “walking whales,” as he calls them, including a complete skull and pelvis — two of the most important bones for tracing evolutionary changes in the species. “In the past, this whale could walk on land and swim. It’s sort of transitional between terrestrial and fully aquatic. And when you go back and find a more primitive whale, it’s another piece of the evolutionary puzzle,” he said.
After further inspection in the lab, the pelvis revealed that the new primitive whale had much stronger hind limbs than those of Basilosaurus. “The pelvis is very well-developed, and you can see the groove muscle attachments that connect to the vertebral column and thighs, which means it had a sturdy hind limb that could lift that body on land,” Sallam said.
These fossils tell us more than just the whale’s evolution. Through these discoveries, researchers can learn about the ecosystem of the area, migration and early behaviors of these ancient creatures, as well as what fueled their movement from land to sea.
“I’m very proud of my students because I shared with them my dream of establishing the first Egyptian school for vertebrate paleontology. So it’s now our collective dream.”
For instance, Sallam said, “We know based on the fossils we discovered that the whale came to Egypt throughout a 10-million-year period for mating, giving birth and eating.”
Sallam realizes the implications of this work for the future. “We are not just digging for fun,” he explained. “We are trying to answer big questions like climate change.”
According to Sallam, this sort of work might paint a bigger picture of what was going on in the Southern Hemisphere during the ancient global warming of the Eocene epoch and provide insight into our own future if we continue producing carbon dioxide at the same rate.
The four-legged prehistoric walking whale, Phiomicetus anubis, isn’t the only major discovery Sallam’s team has published. Over the last few years, they also found the bones of a 34-million- year-old rodent, a 37-million-year-old gigantic catfish, snake and legless lizard fossils in the Fayoum Depression, and the first evidence of a 100-million-year-old Abelisauroid, a meat-eating dinosaur, in the Bahariya Oasis, among others.
A New Epoch of Paleontology in Egypt
With all these exciting breakthroughs, Sallam has become a bit of a local sensation. He admitted that after his team’s discovery of what they named the Mansourasaurus in 2018, he started to share his work on social media, and his Facebook page reached up to 158,000 followers.
Sallam is now working to build a center to study vertebrate paleontology at AUC in order to further boost the field across Egypt. “I always say Egypt is the country of both prehistoric and historic times. We have a really great heritage of prehistoric life that was hidden in the Sahara Desert, and now it’s being dug up by Egyptians,” he said.
For Sallam, the most rewarding part of his work is continually seeing its value for new students who enter his labs and offices at AUC and Mansoura University, where he founded the Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Center and serves as a professor in the field. Additionally, his lab’s outreach initiatives have given young Egyptian school students the opportunity to visit excavation sites for the first time.
“I always get feedback from parents saying, ‘My children have changed’ after a week or two in the desert learning about prehistoric life and connecting with nature,” he shared. “And I’m really glad that my students and I are working to shape the next generation of Egyptians by inspiring their passion.”