It's a deer...It's a crocodile..It's a ...

Dec 01, 2019, 05:11 AM

More than 50 million years ago, a deer-like, hoofed herbivore wandered along the banks of a river near the ancient Tethys sea. What would it evolve into?

The deer-like, dog-nosed, hoofed terrestrial mammal Indohyus existed more than 50 million years ago in the early Eocene, an epoch of wet and balmy weather. What did it evolve into?

My train lumbered into Lucknow, a cultural whirlpool in North India, famous for its silken kebabs, exquisite embroidery and soulful poetry.

But I was here for something even more compelling. My trip was stoked by half-a-century-old discoveries in India — finds that deemed the subcontinent as the ground zero of a fascinating mammalian evolution.

I was at the home of 78-year-old Ashok Sahni, the sensei of Indian palaeontology.

“This was in the 1970s,” said Ashok Sahni. “There had been reports that there were large skulls but nobody in India, in fact, had identified them. One of my students — he was a young guy then — went to Kutch and he came up with several fossils.”

Vijay Prakash Mishra is the student Ashok was talking about. He’s now in his sixties. But four decades ago at the age of 21, Vijay Prakash started scouring the desiccated Kutch region in western India.

This white, salt-crusted desert was once a shallow sea, rife with plankton and fish.

“So, naturally we expected marine vertebrates -- crocodiles,” said Vijay Prakash Mishra. “But we didn’t think we would find certain things that were not known from India.”

Ashok Sahni in his home in Lucknow. Ashok deduced some fossils finds from Kutch in western India to be that of whales based on a book about whale fossils in Egypt.
Sunil Bajpai in his lab at IIT Roorkee. Many of these fossils were found in the desert of Kutch.
The Indohyus fossil that Dutch palaeontologist Hans Thewissen studied had a earbone peculiar to whales. It was one of the earliest ancestors of whales.
Pakicetus was the wolf-like, fish-eating, amphibious whale ancestor.
Ambulocetus, literally walking whale, had clown-shoe-like webbed feet that allowed it to paddle like a walrus.
Remingtonocetus was an ancestral whale with a crocodile-like snout and short limbs.
Palaeontologist Sunil Bajpai holding up a fossil of a remingtonocetus.
Another view of the remingtonocetus fossil. This ancestral whale was named after American palaeontologist Remington Kellogg.