The latest government advisories on the new monovalent COVID-19 vaccines were not much of a surprise. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccines as safe and effective, and a day later the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the shots for all Americans over the age of six months.
Even less of a surprise was the reaction of the resolutely anti-vax, anti-science Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The Republican, who is angling for the GOP nomination for president, staged a roundtable of scientific mountebanks on Wednesday to attack the vaccines.
They included his crackpot state surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, and Stanford professor Jay Bhattacharya, who is a member of a COVID-19 advisory committee assembled by DeSantis. Bhattacharya is also a purveyor of a fatuous program of usless anti-COVID policies that has been impervious to the raw data that persistently demonstrated that it did not work.
There’s been an enormous experience with this vaccine, with more than 13 billion doses distributed. It is arguably one of the best-studied vaccines in history, with a tremendous safety record.
— Vaccine authority Paul Offit, The Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia
In the course of the event, Ladapo announced that the state Department of Health would advise against anyone under 65 taking the new vaccine.
DeSantis’ roundtable took place, naturally, on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, which is today most notable as the place where truth goes to die.
The roundtable, as one might have predicted, was an agglomeration of misinformation, misunderstanding and misrepresentation that amounted to a public health threat in real time.
It raised the question of how many lives would be saved across the country if DeSantis’ presidential campaign completes its glide path to irrelevancy, sapping his quest for the most politically expedient right-wing policy prescriptions.
The answer, conservatively, is hundreds of thousands. Florida boasts one of the worst COVID death rates in the nation, more than 391 deaths per 100,000 population. If Florida’s rate were applied to the entire U.S. population instead of the national rate of 338.6 deaths per 100,000, then nearly 1.3 million Americans would have perished from the disease, instead of the documented toll of 1.1 million.
(By the same token, if the entire U.S. had California’s low death rate of 258 per 100,000, the national death toll would have been lower by 267,500.)
In other words, the end to DeSantis’ boorish, charisma-free performance on the campaign trail would be a public health boon. Can there be any greater proof of the adage that “elections have consequences”?
What’s curious is that DeSantis’ attack on the vaccines is a complete about-face from his initial reaction. On Dec. 14, 2020, he stood at a lectern in Tampa and bragged about having been on hand that day for the very first shipments of the vaccine to his state. “I had the privilege to be able to actually sign for the vaccines from FedEx,” he said.
Soon after that, however, he must have concluded that his path to challenging Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination involved kowtowing to the far right wing. That included embracing the anti-vaccination movement in a bear hug.
That said, let’s take a look at the roundtable, which was a one-stop shop for anti-vaccine tropes.
The event started out as a flat-out attack on the CDC and FDA, aimed at undermining the credibility of the nation’s leading public health agencies.
This has long been a theme of DeSantis’ world. As long ago as 2021 he was fundraising off a personal attack on Anthony Fauci, who was not associated with either agency but was the nation’s most respected authority on epidemics and immunology. His campaign sold T-shirts bearing the slogan “Don’t Fauci my Florida.”
An online fundraising appeal made Fauci the subject of every paragraph. “I refused to blindly follow Dr. Fauci … and allow him to strip Floridians of their God-given freedoms,” DeSantis declared. “I chose to lift Florida up, not follow the lead of Dr. Fauci and lock Florida down.”
Ladapo opened the roundtable by stating, “We continue to live in a world where the CDC and the FDA, when it comes to COVID at least, are just beating their own path in a direction that’s just inexplicable, in terms of thinking about data and thinking about common sense.”
This is a guy who has promoted nostrums that science has shown to be utterly useless against COVID, such as the anti-parasitic ivermectin and the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.
Ladapo turned the mike over to Bhattacharya. He aired the familiar anti-vaxxers’ complaint that the new vaccine has not been subjected to a randomized clinical test. This is a claim popularized by anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and it’s utterly bogus.
As I reported earlier, randomized testing of every iteration of the current vaccines is unethical, unwise and unnecessary. The truth is that such trials are important when an entirely novel product is developed, as occurred when the mRNA vaccines against COVID most widely used today were originally developed by Moderna and Pfizer.
“There’s been an enormous experience with this vaccine, with more than 13 billion doses distributed,” says Paul Offit, a vaccine authority at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee. “It is arguably one of the best-studied vaccines in history, with a tremendous safety record,” Offit told me.
Demanding a randomized prospective trial for every iteration of this vaccine makes no more sense than doing so for the annual updates of the flu vaccine, which doesn’t happen, Offit says.
Bhattacharya also implied that the protection against COVID provided by the previous vaccine versions is modest and “short-lived,” based on the waning of antibody levels over the months after the shot. Of the new shot, he said, “We don’t know that it protects you against being hospitalized, we don’t know that it protects you against dying.”
Yet it’s well understood that antibodies always fade during the months after a shot.
In the case of COVID, Offit told me, “the critical immunological component responsible for protecting against severe disease is the memory T-cells, which are long-lived and recognize parts of the virus that have been generally conserved, from Wuhan-1 [the original recognized strain] to BA.2.86 [the rapidly spreading strain against which the new vaccines are expected to be effective].”
As for the suggestion that the vaccinations don’t protect much against COVID, that’s absurd. Data have consistently shown that case and death rates have been higher among the unvaccinated than the vaccinated, sometimes as much as 14 times higher.
That brings us to what may be the most preposterous and irresponsible claim aired by Ladapo during the roundtable.
“Multiple studies” in the U.S., the Middle East, Iceland and other places, he said, “are now finding that after four to six months, what was just waning effectiveness … is entering a negative area,” which means that after a period there is “risk of increased infection. This is obviously an enormous finding.”
It also appears to be wholly mythical. Ladapo wasn’t very precise about where he got the idea that vaccination can increase susceptibility to COVID, a phenonomenon known as “negative immunity” or “negative efficacy.” But it needs to be stifled at birth.
I asked Ladapo’s health department to identify the studies he referred to. The agency didn’t respond, but the vaccine advisory it issued later Thursday listed 14 studies backing up Ladapo’s claims supporting his caution about the vaccines.
Not a single one supported his claims about negative immunity. One, of vaccination outcomes in Qatar, mentioned such a finding, but cautioned that it was almost certainly due to bias in the study design and “not true negative biological effectiveness.” On the whole, the study certified that the mRNA vaccines provide “strong and durable protection against COVID-19 hospitalization and death.”
As for Iceland, the health department advisory listed a study from that country that found that the rate of reinfection from the Omicron variant of COVID increased with the time since vaccination, and that the rate of reinfection was slightly higher among Icelanders who had two shots than one. But it advised that the finding should be “interpreted with caution” because of the complexities of assessing the conditions under which the shots were administered and the Icelandic lifestyle.
The notion of “negative immunity” appears mostly to derive from a 2022 article on a right-wing website that stupidly misconstrued graphs in a scientific paper.
That paper’s author, Danyu Lin of the University of North Carolina, conclusively refuted the interpretation in interviews with Reuters and the Associated Press. “The statement that ‘the vaccine destroys any protection a person has from natural immunity’ is unfounded,” he told Reuters. He told the AP, “The evidence we have supports the finding that natural immunity is boosted by vaccination rather than being destroyed by vaccination as claimed.”
Yet the claim was swiftly taken up by the far right and anti-vax communities because it fed their conspiracy theories so well.
Ladapo and DeSantis, despite their claim to adhere to science and data, are all too happy to retail this claptrap. Have they come to believe their claims? Or are they just trying to slip lies past a credulous public for their own malignant purposes?
We have one clue from Ladapo’s history of flagrant falsehoods. We know from reporting last April in Politico that he personally altered a state-sponsored study of the COVID vaccines to inflate their risk to young men, which fed his anti-vaccination mindset.
In March, the FDA and CDC warned Ladapo in an unusual, if not unique, joint letter that his claims about the purported dangers of the COVID vaccines were “incorrect, misleading and could be harmful to the American public.” Misinformation like his denigrating vaccine safety “has led to unnecessary death, severe illness and hospitalization.”
In short, he and his mentor in the Florida statehouse are menaces to the public health. Perhaps if DeSantis’ presidential campaign finally crashes and burns, he’ll give up on the attacks on COVID vaccination and return to his original stance, when the vaccines were first introduced in early 2020 and he gloated about obtaining an early shipment for his state.
Until then, unfortunately, public health sits on a knife‘s edge. DeSantis and Ladapo are the most prominent public officials undermining the crucial effort to get more Americans vaccinated. As the toll continues to mount, the blood is on their hands.
Dianne Feinstein’s cause of death hasn’t been disclosed, but it likely wasn’t dementia
No cause of death has been disclosed for Dianne Feinstein, the longtime California senator who struggled with evident health problems in her final years before her death Thursday night.
She was absent from the U.S. Senate for nearly three months earlier this year while recovering from a case of shingles that led to encephalitis, a rare complication that causes inflammation and swelling in the brain. She was briefly hospitalized in August after falling at her home and was often seen in a wheelchair in public.
Indications that Feinstein, 90, was struggling with memory problems have persisted for years, even before the acknowledged health crises in the last year of her life.
Several of Feinstein’s colleagues and former staffers confided to reporters that she was often unable to recognize longtime colleagues and repeated herself frequently. In July she appeared confused during a Senate Appropriations Committee vote and began to read a prepared statement before the committee chair prompted her to “just say aye.”
Feinstein maintained that she was cognitively fit to continue her fifth full term, and neither her office nor her family has ever confirmed if she had any neurological condition.
Even if the senator’s apparent memory lapses were the result of dementia, the disease would almost certainly not have been her cause of death, doctors said Friday.
“In general, older adults often have a confluence of several different medical problems, and to say which one, ‘caused the death’ can be very difficult,” said Dr. Laura Mosqueda, a professor of geriatrics and family medicine at USC Keck School of Medicine. “We don’t need to look for a simple answer to an actually complicated question.”
The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive and incurable condition. Alzheimer’s can be a direct cause of death in its latest stages, when the disease begins to damage parts of the brain that control essential biological functions like breathing and swallowing.
A common cause of death for people with late-stage Alzheimer’s is aspiration pneumonia, an infection in the lungs triggered by food or other foreign substance that goes down the windpipe instead of the esophagus. This becomes a bigger risk as the muscles that control swallowing and chewing weaken in the late stages of the disease.
By then, it is no longer possible for patients to keep up even a semblance of their previous activities.
“You would typically not see someone functioning, walking, talking. Usually people are bedridden at that point,” said Dr. Mark Mapstone, a neuropsychologist at UC Irvine.
Doctors were quick to note that without knowing Feinstein’s health history, it was impossible to know for certain whether she suffered from any neurological condition.
Yet even though her appearance in the Senate in her final years was a shock to those familiar with her during her long career, she was not as ill as a person with advanced Alzheimer’s.
“Dianne Feinstein was looking pretty frail and seemed a little confused sometimes in public appearances,” said Dr. Michael Weiner of UC San Francisco, the principal investigator of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. Yet if she did have dementia, he said, “she was definitely not in an advanced stage. It wasn’t even clear if you can say she was in a moderate stage. You can only judge from these outside appearances.”
Column: Right-wing judges are on a mission to stop the FDA from warning consumers about snake oil
To anyone who has paid even a modicum of serious attention to COVID-19 and its treatment, ivermectin is the zombiest of zombie drugs.
Used to treat parasitic diseases in animals and humans, the drug became a darling of anti-vaccination activists and conspiracy-mongers, who pushed it as a treatment for the pandemic disease and claimed it was being suppressed by Big Pharma, among other sinister forces.
Contrary to its continued promotion by quacks such as Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, the drug has been conclusively shown to be utterly useless against COVID.
You are not a horse. Stop it with the #ivermectin. It’s not authorized for treating #COVID.
— Food and Drug Administration counsels against a useless COVID treatment
One would have hoped that hard scientific evidence and a stern advisory by the Food and Drug Administration against its use would have been enough to kill the ivermectin craze, but it lives on. Last year, three doctors sued the FDA, claiming that its public warning harmed their practices and cost them their jobs at hospitals and medical schools.
A few months later, a federal judge in Galveston threw out their case, ruling in effect that they didn’t come close to having a leg to stand on. That should have been an end to it. But earlier this month, the case was revived by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which takes cases from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi and is, by many measures, the hackiest of hack-ridden federal courts.
The three judges hearing this appeal — two appointed by George W. Bush and one (the opinion’s author) by Donald Trump — found that the FDA had exceeded its authority in advising against the use of ivermectin against COVID. “The FDA can inform,” the court said, “but it has identified no authority allowing it to recommend consumers ‘stop’ taking medicine.” (Emphasis in the original.)
That’s absurd, says Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, an expert on vaccine policy at University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, and the author of a withering analysis of the 5th Circuit opinion.
The FDA’s job, Reiss told me, is to “balance the need for treatment with safety concerns. If the FDA can’t translate what it’s finding into plain language — ‘do this, don’t do that’ — then it can’t do its job. That undermines the whole regulatory scheme.”
More on that in a moment. First, some context.
Undermining the FDA’s authority has been a right-wing project for years. That’s because the agency’s duty is to stand in the way of businesses desiring to push unsafe and ineffective nostrums at unwary consumers, and also in the way of a perverse idea that personal freedom includes the freedom to be gulled by charlatans.
This campaign got pumped up during the Trump administration. Trump in 2018 signed a federal “right-to-try” law that masqueraded as a compassionate path giving sufferers of intractable, incurable diseases access to experimental treatments. In fact, as I wrote, it was a cynical ploy backed by the Koch brothers’ network aimed at emasculating the FDA in a way that would undermine public health.
Trump subsequently browbeat his maladroit FDA chairman, Stephen Hahn, into issuing an emergency authorization for the use of convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19 patients. Like ivermectin, that was another utterly ineffective treatment.
In announcing his decision while Trump stood glaring at him, Hahn grossly misrepresented the results of a medical trial conducted by the Mayo Clinic, which failed to demonstrate any effectiveness for the treatment. In the run-up to the announcement, Trump issued a tweet accusing “the deep state … at the FDA” of deliberately delaying effective COVID treatments until after the upcoming Nov. 3, 2020, election, which Trump lost. Hahn didn’t respond to that frontal attack on his agency’s integrity.
The FDA is under more solid management now, but the malign influence of judges Trump installed in the federal judiciary lives on. That brings us to the 5th Circuit, on which 12 of the 16 currently active judges were appointed by Republican presidents — six by Trump.
The court has received appeals of some of the loopiest district court rulings of recent memory, largely because conservative litigants in Texas have the ability to hand-pick judges who see things their way.
Among the recent rulings those judges have issued that swear at precedent and common sense are those outlawing the use of the medication mifepristone for abortion (another case aimed at undermining FDA authority) and barring agencies of the federal government from communicating with social media companies, which was brought by right-wing litigants hoping to hobble the government’s battle against medical misinformation.
The 5th Circuit judges have frequently matched the district court rulings they’re reviewing with loopy opinions of their own.
Trump appointee James Ho issued a partial concurrence in the mifepristone case in which he asserted that an “unborn child” was “killed by mifepristone,” and justified outlawing use of the drug by stating that “unborn babies are a source of profound joy for those who view them. Expectant parents eagerly share ultrasound photos with loved ones. Friends and family cheer at the sight of an unborn child. Doctors delight in working with their unborn patients — and experience an aesthetic injury when they are aborted.”
(The court narrowed the FDA’s authority to approve the drug, but its ruling is under review by the Supreme Court.)
In a 2019 case, a three-judge panel voted 2-1 to find that a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, and possibly the entire law, was unconstitutional. In her concurrence, Jennifer Walker Elrod, a George W. Bush appointee in the majority, approvingly repeated a right-wing congressman’s claim that the act was “a fraud on the American people.”
The 5th Circuit judges combine their clownish approach to the law with a clownish confusion over the federal rules of procedure they are bound to apply. As recently as Tuesday, the appeals court had to withdraw an order it had issued the day before, granting red state plaintiffs a rehearing in the case involving government contacts with social media companies.
The court had originally allowed four government agencies to continue interacting with the companies; the red states wanted the judges to withdraw their permission. But the court’s granting of a rehearing so flagrantly violated procedural rules governing cases, like this one, that are already under consideration by the Supreme Court, that it had to immediately backtrack. (The circuit’s clerk of the court obligingly accepted the blame, attributing Monday’s grant to a “clerical error.”
The judges who made this blunder — Elrod, Edith Brown Clement and Don R. Willett — are the same ones who ruled in the ivermectin case. Let’s take another gander at that ruling.
Reiss terms the ruling “problematic on legal and policy grounds” by “undercutting the FDA’s ability to offer expertise-based guidance about products they regulate.”
The judges were particularly exercised by an FDA Twitter campaign that aimed to dissuade consumers from taking the veterinary preparation of ivermectin commonly administered to horses.
“You are not a horse,” the agency tweeted. “Stop it with the #ivermectin. It’s not authorized for treating #COVID.” The agency also issued a general warning headlined “Why You Should Not Use Ivermectin to Treat or Prevent COVID-19,” explaining that the drug has not been shown to be effective for the purpose and is dangerous in high doses.
The three plaintiff doctors — one from Virginia, one from Texas, and one practicing in Washington and Arizona — had lost their hospital privileges or other professional positions for promoting the drug. The latter plaintiff is under investigation by medical regulators in the two states where he’s licensed. All three blamed the FDA.
The 5th Circuit judges agreed that even though the agency pointed out that it has no power to order patients to do or not do anything and no authority over physicians — who have the legal right to prescribe medications approved by the FDA for “off-label” uses — it had exceeded its authority by using “imperative” language (i.e., “Stop it”) instead of merely declaring that the drug wasn’t approved for COVID.
Yet as Reiss points out, the FDA frequently couches its advisories in such straightforward terms, and has done so virtually since its creation in its present form in 1930. The agency’s warning against unproven stem cell treatments — a dark and dangerous hive of medical charlatans — advises patients, “Don’t believe the hype” and adds that it’s “increasing its oversight and enforcement to protect people from dishonest and unscrupulous stem cell clinics.”
Carrying the 5th Circuit’s ruling to its logical extreme, the agency’s stem cell warning would exacerbate the vulnerability of disease sufferers to quacks hawking expensive and ineffective treatments.
Despite the judges’ contention that it has no authority to offer recommendations to the public, Reiss notes that such authority is actually embedded in federal law, which gives the FDA the right to undertake “collecting, reporting, and illustrating the results of [its] investigations.”
“That certainly seems to include conclusions based on the data collected,” Reiss wrote: “Reporting on the result of an investigation that showed ivermectin is not effective for COVID-19 would naturally include a comment that it should not be used.”
In any event, there’s no case to be made that the FDA warnings caused the doctors’ professional troubles. Several professional organizations have warned of the ineffectiveness of ivermectin for COVID, including the American Medical Assn. No medical board needed the FDA to tell it that doctors prescribing this modern snake oil deserved scrutiny.
It’s possible that the appellate judges themselves had an inkling that they were on thin ice in their ruling. They didn’t rule conclusively that the FDA was wrong, but rather sent the case back to the trial court judge for further pondering on technical grounds, such as whether the FDA’s advisories amount to “final agency actions” subject to court review or whether the doctors even had standing to bring the lawsuit in the first case.
“They seem to be trying to hedge,” Reiss says. On the other hand, they didn’t dismiss the case outright, as they should have. The judges cast a shadow over the FDA, at a time when its crucial, lifesaving campaign against medical misinformation doesn’t need any more head winds.
An Ancient Whale Named for King Tut, but Moby-Dinky in Size
In 1842, a vast, nearly intact skeleton was unearthed on a plantation in Alabama; it was soon identified as a member of Basilosaurus, a recently named genus of prehistoric sea serpent. But when some of its enormous bones were shipped to England, Richard Owen, an anatomist, noted that its molars had two roots, not one, a dental morphology unknown in any reptile. He determined that the fossil was actually a marine mammal: a primitive whale. Herman Melville name-drops the behemoth — Mr. Owen called it Zeuglodon — in Chapter 104 of “Moby-Dick,” and Mr. Owen, in a paper that he read to the London Geological Society, pronounced it “one of the most extraordinary creatures which the mutations of the globe have blotted out of existence.”
In August, a team of paleontologists announced the discovery of another extraordinary creature that was blotted out of existence. Eleven years ago, while working in the Fayum Depression of the Western Desert in Egypt, the team excavated the fossil of what they initially thought was a small amphibian. But closer inspection revealed that the bones belonged to a previously unknown species of miniature whale that existed during the late middle Eocene, in a period called the Bartonian Age, which lasted from about 48 million to 38 million years ago. The species, described in a paper in the journal Communications Biology, inhabited the Tethys Sea, the tropical precursor of the Mediterranean, which covered about a third of what is now northern Africa.
Ishmael, the protagonist of “Moby-Dick,” asserts somewhat disingenuously that a whale is a “spouting fish with a horizontal tail.” The newly documented specimen looked less like a fish than a bottlenose dolphin, with a less-bulbous forehead and a more elongated body and tail. Based on a skull, jaw, teeth and vertebrae fragments embedded in compacted limestone, researchers inferred that the wee whale, which dates back some 41 million years, was about eight feet long and weighed roughly 400 pounds, making it the tiniest known member of the basilosaurid family.
All whales are descended from terrestrial animals that ventured into the sea. Some early whales evolved into forms that ventured back onto land; basilosaurids are thought to be the first widespread group to have stuck with the sea life. They were also the last to have hind limbs that were still recognizable as legs, which were probably used less for locomotion than as reproductive guides to help orient the whales during sex.
Melville dismissed whale taxonomy as “mere sounds, full of Leviathanism, but signifying nothing.” He likely would have had little use for Tutcetus rayanensis, the official name of the small-scale whale ancestor. Tutcetus combines Tut — recalling the pharaoh Tutankhamen — and cetus, Greek for whale. The designation also follows the centenary of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and coincides with the impending opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, Egypt. The “rayan” part of the name derives from the Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area, which sits about 25 miles northeast of a site so rich in fossil whales that it has been called Wadi Al-Hitan, or Valley of the Whales.
Like Tut, who died in the Valley of the Kings at age 18, the whale is believed to have been a juvenile nearing adulthood. The research team used CT scanning to analyze Tutcetus’s teeth and bones, reconstructing its growth patterns. The bones of the skull had fused, as had parts of the first vertebrae, and while some of the teeth had emerged, some were still in transition. The rapid dental development and small bone size of Tutcetus suggest a short, fast life compared with larger and later basilosaurids, said Hesham Sallam, a paleontologist at the American University of Cairo and leader of the project.
The whale may have been able to feed itself and move independently almost from birth, researchers said. The soft enamel and configuration of its teeth suggest that it was a meat-eater, with a diet of aquatic animals.
The discovery challenges some conventional assumptions about the life history of primitive whales. “The geological age of Tutcetus is a bit older than other closely related fossil whales, which hints that some evolutionary changes in whale anatomy happened a bit earlier than we suspected,” said Nicholas Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in the work. “The fossil pushes back the timing of how the earliest whales changed from foot- to tail-propelled movement in the water.”
Whales have an unexpected past. Genetically they are closely related to hoofed mammals, called ungulates, and within that group they are most similar to the artiodactyls, such as camels, pigs, giraffes and hippos, all of which have an even number of toes. One of the best-known early forebears of whales was a 50-million-year-old quadruped called Pakicetus that waded in the estuaries of southern Asia, ate meat and, by some accounts, might have resembled a large house cat with hoof-like claws.
Scientists were able to link Pakicetus to the evolutionary lineage of whales because it had an ear bone with a feature unique to those modern-day giants of the deep. “Importantly, its ankle bones look like those of artiodactyls and helped to support the link of whales to artiodactyls that had previously been suggested by DNA,” said Erik Seiffert, an anatomist at the University of Southern California who collaborated on the paper.
The artiodactyls begot the semiaquatic ambulocetus, a so-called walking whale that looked like a crocodile, swam like an otter and waddled on land like a sea lion. “Ambulocetus actually still had fairly well-developed hind limbs, so it wouldn’t have had a hard time getting around on land,” Dr. Seiffert said. Ambulocetus, in turn, begot protocetid, a more streamlined halfway creature that fed in the sea, but may have returned to land to rest. Over evolutionary time, its hind limbs became smaller, and it maneuvered entirely with its tail.
Eventually, these proto-cetaceans gave rise to archaeocet, a fully aquatic basilosaurid. Aided by flippers and paddle-like tails, basilosaurids dispersed through the oceans worldwide. The one that turned up on that Alabama plantation in 1842 may even have crossed the Atlantic.
Mohammed Antar, a paleontologist at Mansoura University who dug up the Tutcetus fossil and was first author of the new paper, said climate and location may have made the Fayum Depression inviting to basilosaurids. “Modern whales migrate to warmer, shallow waters for breeding and reproduction, mirroring the conditions found in Egypt 41 million years ago,” he said.
The setting seems to have provided relatively safe harbor for female whales to give birth in shallow waters. “As far as we can tell from the abundant fossils of tree-living primates found there, the area lining the northern edge of what is now the Sahara was effectively a tropical forest during the middle Eocene,” Dr. Seiffert said. The protected coasts of northern Africa, he added, “might have allowed whale calves time to mature and reach a level of navigational and feeding proficiency before heading out into open water, then very deep water.”
In August, shortly before the diminutive Tutcetus was unveiled in Egypt, paleontologists working in Peru reported the discovery of an extinct whale that may have been the heaviest animal ever. Perucetus colossus swam the oceans 38 million years ago and is estimated to have weighed as much as 200 tons, a figure comparable to the blue whale, the current record-holder.
Perucetus and Tutcetus were alive just a few million years before primitive whales began their evolutionary split into the two cetacean suborders of today: the toothed whales, dolphins and porpoises known as odontoceti, and the baleen-bearing mysticeti, including blue whales and humpbacks.
“The mysticetes tend to be much larger than the odontocetes,” said Jonathan Geisler, an anatomist at the New York Institute of Technology. “And this difference is related to their different feeding strategies.” Toothed whales hunt individual prey such as fish and squid, while baleen whales filter-feed to gather krill, copepods and tiny schooling fish.
“Understanding the size of the ancestor of all modern whales helps us understand how these feeding behaviors and distinct body size differences evolved,” Dr. Geisler said. “Tutcetus is one data point in the effort, but it supports the hypothesis that the common ancestor of all living cetaceans was fairly small.”
Dr. Sallam said that similar to the way Melville, reflecting on the Basilosaurus skeleton found in 1842, imagines a time when “the whole world was the whale’s,” the discovery underscores the transient nature of existence and provides a tangible connection to a prehistoric past. “The significance of the find, like the fossils described in ‘Moby Dick,’ extends beyond the realm of paleontology,” he said. “It highlights the enduring fascination with Earth’s ancient history.”
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