An Ultimate Guide to Ambulocetus: The Walking Whale

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 24th September 2023

Name MeaningWalking WhaleHeightN/A
PronunciationAm-byoo-loh-see-tusLength3 to 3.5 meters (10 to 11.5 feet)
EraCenozoic – Paleogene PeriodWeight300 kgs (660 lbs)
ClassificationMammalia, Atriodactyla, & CetaceaLocationPakistan (Asia)

Ambulocetus Pictures

Ambulocetus | CoreyFord via Getty Images

The Ambulocetus

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Ambulocetus Concept
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Ambulocetus Concept

The ancestors of modern whales are otter-like terrestrial mammals that returned to the ocean about 50 million years ago. 

While it might sound incredible, fossil evidence from transitional species confirms the idea that whales descended from land-walking ancestors. 

One such transitional creature is the Ambulocetus

Aptly named the “walking whale,” Ambulocetus is a genus of primitive cetacean (the family that includes whales and dolphins) that lived an amphibious life during the Eocene Epoch.

Ambulocetus was the primitive otter-like ancestor of the whale and lived in Pakistan. | CoreyFord via Getty Images

It lived on the Indian subcontinent and shows adaptations that suggest an adaptation to life on land and in the water. 

The walking whale is known from just one fossil remains.

However, this near-complete skeleton is one of the most studied cetacean fossils because it serves as a vital missing link that explains the evolution of the whales as they transitioned from terrestrial to fully aquatic life. 

In this article, we’ll detail all the interesting facts about this strange 10-foot-long cetacean that was alive roughly 45 million years ago. 

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Physical Characteristics

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Ambulocetus Size Comparison Chart
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Ambulocetus Size Comparison Chart

Ambulocetus has been nicknamed the “walking whale.” 

So it isn’t surprising that this prehistoric whale looks considerably different from modern whale species. 

It looked more like an amphibian than any of its present-day relatives but also had many features that confirmed its relationship with present-day marine mammals. 

It was a large animal with a streamlined and elongated body, somewhat resembling a crocodilian. 

It also had limbs which indicates that it was a semi-aquatic animal capable of moving on land and swimming in the water.  wasn’t as big as most of its modern relatives. 

It measured about three meters (about 10 feet) in length and may have weighed roughly 300 kilograms (660 pounds). 

This is about the same size as an American sea lion. 

Restoration of Ambulocetus | Nobu Tamura via Spinops (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ambulocetus had a long and broad snout, with its eyes positioned above its head like that of modern-day crocodiles. 

Their large jaws were lined with large teeth of different sizes. 

This is unlike that of modern whales known for their homodont dentition. 

It had powerful limbs that were intermediate between terrestrial mammals and modern whales. 

Its front limbs were well-developed and looked like they were adapted into webbed feet. 

Ambulocetus hindlimb at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris | Ghedoghedo via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

However, they still had flexible wrists and fingers, which made them well-suited for swimming. 

The hind limbs were also present but were smaller and less functional. 

The limb proportions of the Ambulocetus are very similar to that of modern-day seals or otters. 

It also had a long and robust tail. 

But like many other prehistoric whales, their tail likely lacked flukes.

Habitat and Distribution

The Ambulocetus was alive approximately 48 to 47 million years ago during the Early Eocene Epoch. 

Fossil evidence suggests that this ancient mammal inhabited regions that are now part of present-day Pakistan, which is a part of the Indian subcontinent. 

Although fossil evidence is limited, experts think the specific geographic range of Ambulocetus may have been limited to the coastal and shallow marine environments of the ancient Tethys Sea.

It was a semi-aquatic creature, which means it was well-adapted to life on land and in the water. 

Ambulocetus | estt via Getty Images

Unlike modern relatives that are mostly marine, Ambulocetus was capable of living in freshwater, estuaries, and shallow marine habitats. 

When it was alive during the Eocene Epoch, the climate was generally warmer than present-day levels. 

High global temperatures caused the polar ice caps to melt, resulting in a higher sea level compared to today. 

The high sea levels created vast coastal and shallow marine environments, which made suitable habitats for semi-aquatic creatures like the Ambulocetus.

Behavior and Diet

Ambulocetus | CoreyFord via Getty Images

As explained earlier, Ambulocetus was a semi-aquatic creature. 

It is often compared to modern-day otters or crocodiles. 

The presence of well-arranged bony struts in the leg bones of the Ambulocetus and a well-articulated connection between the pelvis and spine suggests that this animal could support its body weight on its leg on land. 

However, due to its size and limited functionality of its limbs, movement on land would have been somewhat awkward for the Ambulocetus. 

It probably waddled on land, pulling its body on its forelimbs, similar to how sea lions do. 

Ambulocetus waddling | CoreyFord via Getty Images

Ambulocetus was a proficient swimmer. 

It used its powerful limbs for primary propulsion, while its long tail may have provided some lift in the water. 

This is similar to the swimming mechanism of modern river otters. 

Like its modern relatives, Ambulocetus may have had advanced sensory features that made it capable of hearing sound when underwater. 

There was a large cavity in the lower jaw of the specimen. 

Reconstructed Ambulocetus skull at the Museo storia naturale di Pisa | Notafly via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This cavity contained extensive fat pads and tiny ear bones that helped to channel sound. 

Because these features are not well-preserved in the fossils, it isn’t clear to what extent the sensory abilities of the Ambulocetus worked. 

It’s also difficult to tell if it could communicate like modern whales and to what extent they interacted. 

Ambulocetus individuals were most likely solitary, living and hunting alone. 

They were carnivores and showed several physical adaptations that suggest they were skilled predators. 

Ambulocetus | CoreyFord via Getty Images

This includes sharp pointed teeth, strong jaw muscles, and eyes positioned on top of its head like that of a crocodile. 

Ambulocetus likely preyed on large fish and other aquatic animals in its ecosystem.

Its flexible spine and streamlined body allowed it to chase prey efficiently through the water. 

Ambulocetus likely hunted prey by ambush. 

The positioning of the walking whale’s eyes on top of its head meant it could keep most of its body hidden while peeking out of the water. 

Reconstructed Ambulocetus skeleton at the Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa | Hectonichus via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This would have made it easy to attack large terrestrial mammals approaching the water’s edge for a drink. 

When attacking prey, the Ambulocetus could keep its nasal canal open as modern crocs do.

They killed prey by drowning them in the water or thrashing around to decapitate them. 

However, unlike modern crocodiles that swallowed pieces of their prey whole, Ambulocetus had chewing teeth. 

Life Cycle

Ambulocetus holotype display arranged in original positions they were found on the ground and swimming posture above, at Naturmuseum Senckenberg, Frankfurt | Ghedoghedo via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Details of the life cycle and reproductive behavior of the Ambulocetus aren’t well-known due to limited fossil evidence. 

However, we can make inferences based on a comparison with modern marine mammals. 

Ambulocetus likely reproduced sexually, with females giving birth to live young after a long gestation period. 

An artist’s illustration of Ambulocetus natans | Photo via Dinopedia

It isn’t clear if mating took place in the water like modern whales or on land like seals and sea lions. 

However, since Ambulocetus likely spent a significant amount of time on land, they likely mated and gave birth to young on land too. 

This would have been safer since offspring were relatively helpless at birth and would have been dependent on parents for care and protection. 

Evolution and History

Ambulocetus natans Pisa | Notafly via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ambulocetus is a member of the family Ambulocetidae, which is part of the suborder Archaeoceti, otherwise known as ancient whales. 

As the name implies, members of this suborder are the early ancestors of modern whales, displaying a mix of aquatic and terrestrial adaptation. 

The Pakicetus, a whale ancestor that lived about 50 million years ago, was one of the earliest members of this group. 

It showed more terrestrial adaptations, suggesting that it lived near water but spent more time on land. 

The Rodhocetus is another popular member of the Archaeoceti group. 

It lived about 46 million years ago and shows adaptations indicative of a fully aquatic lifestyle. 

Restoration of Ambulocetus | Allosaur via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ambulocetus is a transitional species between these two forms. 

It displays an amphibious lifestyle, spending parts of its time on land and in the water. 

These genera demonstrate the gradual evolution of whales from land to water during the early Eocene Epoch. 

One of the most significant adaptations that made the transition to a marine lifestyle possible for the Archaeocetians was the gradual modification of their front limbs into strong paddles.

For the Ambulocetus, this adaptation made it possible to swim efficiently in the water while walking on land as well. 

Ambulocetus natans, a primitive whale from the Early Eocene of Pakistan | Nobu Tamura via Spinops

The flexible spine and otter-like tail of Ambulocetus also made agile swimming possible. 

The arrangement of the skull bone also made it possible for them to swallow food underwater.‭ ‬

Many of these features continued to change as the group evolved.

For instance, the front limbs of modern whales are now completely modified into two giant flippers, while the hindlimbs are almost completely lost.  

Their nostrils are also located on top of their heads, and they now have tail flukes for propelling their body through water. 

Interactions With Other Species

Ambulocetus hunt for prey in the sea. | CoreyFord via Getty Images

As a semi-aquatic predator, Ambulocetus likely preyed on fish and other semi-aquatic animals. 

Because it was capable of hunting at the edge of the water, the prey may have included large mammals approaching the water’s edge to feed on aquatic vegetation or coming for a drink. 

This includes sirenians (relatives of modern-day manatees and the dugong) as well as amphibious animals such as anthracobunids. 

A dugong in the Red Sea near Marsa Alam. | lemga via Getty Images

These two animal groups were quite common in the coastal region of the Indian subcontinent during the Eocene. 

While the Ambulocetus was a top predator in its ecosystem, it would have had to compete for food and other resources with other carnivorous mammals, prehistoric sharks, and aquatic reptiles living in the same environment. 

Cultural Significance

Hans Thewissen with the holotype Ambulocetus skeleton | Akrasia25 via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ambulocetus is often described as a missing link in tracking the evolutionary history of marine mammals. 

The discovery of this amphibious cetacean has aided our understanding of how whales, dolphins, and their other relatives made the transition from land to water. 

Ambulocetus connects the more distant ancestors of the whales, such as the terrestrial Pakicetus, to their modern relatives. 

Although only one fossil of this creature has been found so far, it was so well-preserved that it provides scientists with several vital pieces of information. 

In addition to contributing to our understanding of whale evolution, Ambulocetus has also helped paleontologists reconstruct ancient ecosystems and understand the diversity of life in the region where it lived millions of years ago. 

Reconstructed skeletons of Ambulocetus (right) and the fully aquatic basilosaurid Cynthiacetus (left) at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris | Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

For instance, fossils of this ancestral whale were discovered in modern-day Pakistan, a region where prehistoric megafauna aren’t quite common. 

The discovery of a large predatory species like the Ambulocetus fills an important ecological gap and provides some insights into the possible species interactions that took place in this region. 

Although not very popular in mainstream media, fossil species are commonly featured in documentaries, TV shows, and scientific materials that explore the evolution of life on Earth. 

In general, transitional fossils like this help us gain a deeper understanding of the history of life on Earth and the processes of evolution that led to the current form of living animals.


Ambulocetus is a genus of prehistoric whales that lived on the Indian subcontinent about 48 million years ago.

It lived in the warm coastal waters of the Tethys Sea and was one of the dominant predators in its ecosystem.

The Ambulocetus shows adaptations that suggest that it could walk on land. However, it was probably more suited to an aquatic lifestyle. 

It moved in the water by undulating its body, similar to modern otters. 

The walking whale was an adept hunter that preyed on fish, small mammals, and marine reptiles in its ecosystem. 

It probably prowled the water edges for prey as well. 

The similarity between the Ambulocetus and other identified whale ancestors is the final Lego brick that helps us to reconstruct the transition of the cetaceans to the fully aquatic form that we’re familiar with today. 


When was the first Ambulocetus fossil discovered? 

Ambulocetus was discovered for the first time in January 1992 during an expedition to recover land mammal fossils in the Punjab region of Pakistan. 

Did Ambulocetus have any living descendants?

No. Amulocetus does not have any direct descendants. 

It is not a direct ancestor of modern whales. 

Instead, it represents an early stage in the evolutionary lineage that eventually led to the development of fully aquatic whales and dolphins.

Who discovered Ambulocetus

Pakistani paleontologist Mohammad Arif and American paleontologist Hans Thewissen discovered the first Ambulocetus fossil.


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Jerry Young is a self-proclaimed prehistoric animal nerd. He has been fascinated with these ancient creatures for as long as he can remember, and his passion for them continues to this day. With his extensive knowledge and love for prehistoric animals, he is the perfect fit for Gage Beasley Prehistoric.

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