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Whale ancestor traced in Valley

New Delhi, Dec. 19: The fossils of a 48-million-year-old mammal found near Kakalot in Jammu and Kashmir represent the missing link between whales and their four-footed ancestors, scientists announced today.

The mammal, named Indohyus and resembling a miniature deer, is the closest fossil relative of whales, said researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, and the Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy in the US.

“We knew that the ancestors of whales were land-dwellers, but their identity was unknown,” said Sunil Bajpai, a paleontologist at IIT Roorkee. “This fossil has features on ears and skull until now found exclusively in whales.”

The research on the fossils, led by Hans Thewissen, a professor of anatomy at Northeastern Ohio, has also shown that the mammal was a herbivore and spent much of its time in water. The findings will appear tomorrow in the Nature journal.

The fossils of Indohyus came from 48 to 50-million year-old geological layers near Kalakot on the Indian side of the Line of Control. The bones had a thick outer layer, a feature often observed in slow aquatic waders, such as in the modern-day hippopotamus.

The fossilised teeth of Indohyus have telltale chemical signatures of aquatic existence, while other chemical analyses of the fossils suggest that it was a herbivore.

In the past, some scientists had speculated that whales had descended from carnivorous terrestrial ancestors.

“Indohyus was a plant-eater and was already aquatic. The shift to hunting animals as whales came after the shift in habitat to water,” Thewissen said.

Independent genetic evidence in the past had indicated that the hippopotamus is the closest relative of today’s whales. But hippos don’t appear in the fossil record until about 35 million years after whales had diverged from their terrestrial ancestors.

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