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Fossil burrow assemblage, not mangrove roots: reinterpretation of the main whale-bearing layer in the late Eocene of Wadi Al-Hitan, Egypt

Abstract

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wadi Al-Hitan near Fayum in the Western Desert of Egypt is well-known for its remarkable abundance and diversity of late Eocene marine fossils, especially well-preserved cetaceans and sirenians. However, the taphonomy of the early Priabonian whales and sea cows is still not fully understood. These marine mammals often occur on specific horizons in the Birket Qarun Formation, for example, on a distinctive firmground called the Camp White Layer (CWL). Vertical, rod-like structures in the CWL were previously interpreted as “mangrove pneumatophores,” which have influenced hypotheses about the habitat of early whales. Here, we reexamine the rod-like structures of the CWL and show that they do not represent mangrove rooting structures based on an analysis of their morphology and an extensive comparison with rooting structures of living mangroves. Instead, the morphology of the rod-like structures indicates that they are trace fossils representing five size classes of marine invertebrate burrows, including burrows of weakly umbonate clams and Ophiomorphidae. The complex overprinting of all burrows toward the top of the CWL indicates stratigraphic condensation caused by low overall rates of sedimentation on a marine flooding surface in the transgressive systems tract. The large number of whale carcasses, abundant invertebrate skeletal remains, logs, marine invertebrate-encrusted celestine crystals, and an extensive, diverse burrow network reflect a combination of environmental and temporal condensation. A peculiar feature of the CWL, celestine crystal aggregates and gastropod celestine pseudomorphs, indicate an evaporative phase that is difficult to reconcile with the current sequence stratigraphic framework.

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Acknowledgements

We are indebted to the park rangers and staff of the Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area for their able and tireless assistance, to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency for encouraging and supporting our field studies, and to Georg Oleschinski (University of Bonn) for his assistance with Figs. 3d–g and 7a. We also thank reviewers Robert A. Gastaldo (Colby College, Maine, USA) and Michael R.W. Amler (Universität zu Köln, Germany) for helpful reviews.

Funding

This research was conducted during the tenure of research funds from Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft FOR 533 to CTG and PMS. Field work was supported by the National Geographic Society grant 7226-04 and National Science Foundation grant EAR-0920972 to PDG.

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Correspondence to Carole T. Gee.

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Gee, C.T., Sander, P.M., Peters, S.E. et al. Fossil burrow assemblage, not mangrove roots: reinterpretation of the main whale-bearing layer in the late Eocene of Wadi Al-Hitan, Egypt. Palaeobio Palaeoenv 99, 143–158 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12549-018-0337-0

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Keywords

  • Priabonian
  • Archaeoceti
  • Ichnofossils
  • Fossil mangrove pneumatophores
  • Camp White Layer
  • Celestine