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.
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 potential 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, Qarmoutus represents 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.”
Bones and Bandits
The allure of prehistoric stories like this one is what originally drew El-Sayed, a master’s student at Mansoura University, to professionally pursue vertebrate paleontology.
Her catfish study is the first of its kind led by an Egyptian woman and performed by an all-Egyptian team—although El-Sayed is quick to mention that more papers led by her female colleagues are on the way. Mansoura’s vertebrate paleontology center includes four students studying for their master’s degrees, and all of them are women.
“It is unusual here for a woman to work in the desert or stay out of her home for a week or even a few days,” El-Sayed says. “This lifestyle is not supported in the society here, but my family supported me and encouraged me to do what I love regardless of the traditions and customs.”
El-Sayed took her first course in paleontology as an undergraduate and joined the university’s lab soon after. Her advisor, Hesham Sallam, eventually earned her family’s trust, and in 2011, he was allowed to take El-Sayed to Wadi Al-Hitan, where she helped excavate the catfish.
“I was so excited, as it was my first field trip ever, and I worked with the team to excavate the fish fossil, which I would later name Qarmoutus hitanensis,” she says.
Those first expeditions were not easy, adds El-Sayed, who had to learn on the spot how to correctly unearth fossils while simultaneously dealing with demanding field conditions.
And then there were the bandits. “People always think that we are searching for antiques or gold, because much of our field work is usually in places that are famous for their monuments,” she says.
In one particularly frustrating instance, dubious looters destroyed a rare dinosaur the team was excavating, thinking antiquities were stashed beneath the bones.
“The bones were in really bad shape, so fragmentary, that they couldn’t be fixed. We lost that discovery with broken hearts,” she says.
Now, the team rarely leaves their fossilized treasuress unattended and keeps the bones exposed so curious onlookers won’t get the wrong idea about what’s going on.
El-Sayed, who has now been on 20 expeditions, currently leads fieldwork and helps train upcoming Egyptian paleontologists. She will soon defend her master’s thesis and hopes to earn a Ph.D.
“I would say to any woman who would choose the same path as mine … stay strong and believe in yourself and your abilities,” El-Sayed says. “You can do it.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that El-Sayed is not the first Egyptian woman to pursue a paleontology degree in her home country.