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Basilosaurus: King of the Eocene Seas

You look out across the crisp, blue waters as the Late Eocene sun glistens across the Tethys Ocean, looking for signs of life below the swells of these prehistoric waters. The dinosaurs are all gone, and have been for millions of years, and now a new ruling class of animals also destined for eventual demise roam the planet. While our own species is nowhere to be seen, the end of the reptilian age has opened the door for mammals to rise to a far more dominant position among the global fauna, both on land... and in the sea.

Suddenly, you become aware of movement below you, but the glare from the sun prevents you from discerning what exactly is beneath the surface. A turtle? Sharks? Or perhaps... all of a sudden, the creature surfaces, blowing a spurt of water from its nose, revealing it to be a Dorudon, a small prehistoric whale. Then another appears, and another. Despite being whales, they are clearly different from the cetaceans of the present. They seem to be in a hurry, and the reason is soon revealed. A large, lengthy shape loams past you. It is far more massive than a Dorudon, around seventy feet in length. Is it a colossal sea serpent?

The animal seems to be following the pod of Dorudon. As it swims past, it suddenly knocks your raft, causing you to lose your balance and go flying into the tropical waters of the ancient sea. As you propel yourself back towards the surface, you see what bumped your vessel. It is none other than a Basilosaurus. Despite its name, this is no lizard. Although it does resemble the marine lizards of the Mesozoic, it is a large whale, a relative of the smaller cetaceans it is in pursuit of. Not knowing whether or not this predatory marine mammal would consider you for its next meal, you high tail it back to your raft, which has thankfully sustained little damage. You climb aboard just as the Basilosaurus sinks its teeth into a young Dorudon which fell behind the rest of the pod. Could that have been you? Fortunately, it doesn't look like you will receive an answer to this question.

Millions of years later, in the present day, these coastal waters have been replaced by the deserts of Egypt, and this locale will become the Wadi Al-Hitan fossil site, where scientists will excavate the fossilized bones of these prehistoric marine mammals (Wadi Al-Hitan means "Valley of the Whales").

Familiar, Yet Foreign is what I chose to title my latest painting, an acrylic work depicting two Basilosaurus as they patrol the ancient Tethys Ocean during the Late Eocene Epoch. I chose this title because, though these aquatic beasts are whales, animals which still exist today, they are distinctly different from any whales that have been observed in the modern world. Basilosaurus was a member of the archaeoceti, ("ancient whales,") a group which includes the earliest cetaceans. Its remains have been found in Africa, Asia, the Southeastern United States, and Peru. It was the first prehistoric whale known to science, and could certainly be considered one of, if not the, most famous extinct cetacean.

Basilosaurus, a prehistoric whale that lived during the Late Eocene Epoch, was a predatory behemoth measuring nearly seventy feet in length, the largest of the archeocete whales. It had elongated vertebrae and a pair of tiny hind limbs positioned towards the end of its tail. Such limbs are seen in other ancient, fully aquatic cetaceans and even to a very reduced degree in some modern species. Also, despite its name meaning "king lizard", Basilosaurus is obviously not a lizard. It was originally thought to be a giant marine reptile, hence the name, and despite attempts to change the name since its initial description, Basilosaurus remains, although it is sometimes referred to as Zeuglodon. 2023 by Zachary P. Clamp. Do not use without the permission of Zachary P. Clamp.

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