Peru’s Boiling River

In the rainforest of Amazonian Peru, lies a boiling river that kills everything that is unfortunate enough to fall in. It is the world’s largest thermal river, running for four miles and reaching 80 feet at its widest point and 16 feet at its deepest. What makes it so unique is that it is non-volcanic.

Fossil of oldest known baleen-whale relative unearthed in Peru
Skeleton from South America enables palaeontologists to piece together the puzzle of baleen-whale evolution.

The discovery of a whale fossil dating back to 36.4 million years ago has filled in a gaping hole in the evolution of baleen whales, a group that includes humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) and blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus). The creature, named Mystacodon selenensis, is the oldest baleen-whale relative yet found.

The skeleton displays traits that place it firmly as the first baleen-whale relative known to emerge after an ancient group of whale ancestors called basilosaurids split into two: one branch led to the toothed whales, which include sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and dolphins, and the other to baleen whales. Researchers reported their findings on 11 May in Current Biology1.

“This is the fossil that we’ve been waiting for,” says Nick Pyenson, a palaeontologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. Whale fossils from this time period can answer a lot of questions that researchers have about the origins of living whale lineages, he says. They include the appearance of the earliest baleen whale ancestors.

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Now on view in our newest exhibition, Mummies. Detail of a coffin from the late 25th Dynasty or early 26th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, approximately 700 to 600 BC. In the upper band, the ibis-headed god Thoth holds the hand of the just deceased man. Thoth introduces the man to Osiris, god of the underworld (in the white headdress). In the lower band, the man is being embalmed by the jackal-headed god Anubis. 

© 2015 The Field Museum, A115218d_010A, photographer John Weinstein