If the German paleontologist Eberhard Fraas is remembered for anything, his efforts to discover and describe the impressive dinosaurs of Tanzania’s Tendaguru beds must be at the top of the list. Thanks to a tip about the site from local mining engineer Bernhard Wilhelm Sattler, in 1907 Fraas began to remove impressive Jurassic dinosaurs simultaneously strange and familiar.
The site was Africa’s own Late Jurassic graveyard — one full of spectacular creatures that seemed quite similar to Brachiosaurus, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, and other dinosaurian celebrities found in North America’s ever-productive Morrison Formation. Fraas was delighted to find such a wonderful place –- the dinosaur bones “spoke in an eloquent language of the extinct primeval world”, he later wrote –- and the imposing Giraffatitan which stands in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin is a reconstructed testament to Fraas’ efforts.
But Fraas was not solely focused on dinosaurs during his career. Several years before his journey to Tendaguru, Fraas described a peculiar creature that –- had it only been slightly more complete –- could have quickly closed a gap in our understanding of one of the greatest transitions in evolutionary history. Fraas called the animal Protocetus. It was one of the very earliest whales.
There wasn’t very much left of the original Protocetus specimen. Found in limestone deposits created on the floor of a 45-million-year-old sea where Cairo, Egypt, now sits, the archaic cetacean was represented by a nearly complete skull and a series of vertebrae from the neck down to the hip. No parts of the limbs were found…
(illustration: A restoration of the protocetid whale Maiacetus. Though found in far from Aegyptocetus in Pakistan, Maiacetus represents the general form of the protocetid whales. Image modified from one posted to Flickr by the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History)