An Ultimate Guide to Pakicetus: Whale of Pakistan

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

NamePakicetus DietCarnivorous
Name Meaning“Whale of Pakistan ” Height0.8 meters (31.5 inches)
PronunciationPack-ih-se-tussLength4–6 feet (1.2–2 meters)
EraCenozoic– Paloegene PeriodWeight45 kg (100 lbs)
ClassificationMammalia, Artiodactyla, CetaceaLocationPakistan (Asia)

Pakicetus Pictures

Pakicetus | Nobu Tamura via Wikipedia CC BY 3.0

The Pakicetus

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Pakicetus Concept
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Pakicetus Concept

The ancestors of whales and other marine mammals were terrestrial mammals that began to make a transition to the sea about 50 million years ago.

Based on the current fossil record, the oldest of these whale ancestors is the Pakicetus

This wolf-sized mammal was a fully terrestrial animal that would dabble into the water occasionally. 

It lived in parts of present-day Pakistan during the Eocene Epoch on the edge of an ancient seaway known as the Tethys Sea. 

Pakicetus was a carnivore that fed on fish and other small animals in its ecosystem. 

Fossils of this basal whale were first discovered in 1983 and have since been instrumental in reconstructing the transition of land mammals into whales. 

In this article, we’ll provide an overview of the whale ancestor, discussing its unique physical characteristics, where it lived, behavior, and its paleontological significance, 

Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Shirt Collection
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Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Plush Collection

Physical Characteristics

Pakicetus | The dragnor  via Prehistoric Wiki Fandom

Although considered a whale ancestor, Pakicetus looked considerably different from modern cetaceans. 

Its general body shape and anatomy looked more like that of land-dwelling, hoofed mammals. 

This isn’t entirely surprising since the hippo is considered the closest living relative to present-day whales. 

Unlike other fossil cetaceans that had some of their limbs modified for swimming, Pakicetus had four fully functional legs. 

It was a relatively small mammal, with a size comparable to that of a wolf or a large dog. 

On average, it measured around 4 to 6 feet (1.2–2 meters) in length. 

Pakicetus had a distinct neck and a long, robust tail. 

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

While the rest of the Pakicetus’ body looked like that of a terrestrial animal, its head was distinctively similar to that of a whale’s  

It had a long snout with an arrangement of heterodont teeth, which included incisors, canines, premolars, and molars. 

The position of the Pakicetus’ nose is similar to that of land mammals. 

Unlike modern whales and some whale ancestors that had nostrils on top of their heads, the pakicetus’ nose was at the top of its snout like that of terrestrial mammals. 

In most reconstructions of these prehistoric mammals, it is often depicted with fur all over its body. 

However, since whales are closely related to hippos, it is more likely that the Pakicetus only had sparse hair on its body instead of being completely covered in fur. 

Habitat and Distribution

Pakicetus fossils have been primarily discovered in the region that is now modern-day Pakistan. 

The name “Pakicetus,” which translates as Pakistan whale, reflects its initial discovery in this country. 

The specific range of this prehistoric whale is in the Kala Chitta Hills, located in present-day northern Pakistan.

Scientists think the Pakicetus may have been endemic to this region during the Eocene Epoch about 50 million years ago since this is the only location where fossils of this whale have been found so far. 

During this period, Pakistan was located on the edge of an ancient sea known as the Tethys Sea. 

Tethys sea today, Plateau Ustyurt location
Tethys sea today, Plateau Ustyurt location | HomoCosmicos via iStock

This shallow seaway extended from the present-day Mediterranean Sea to India.

However, the Pakicetus didn’t live or hunt in this sea.  

Oxygen isotope studies indicate that the Pakicetus lived in freshwater environments like lakes and rivers in this region rather than the Tethys Sea itself. The 

The climate during the Eocene Epoch was warmer than present-day conditions. 

During this time, the earth was experiencing a global warming trend known as the Early Eocene Climatic Optimum (EECO)

It was the warmest period of the Cenozoic Era, characterized by a high atmospheric carbon dioxide level which led to a greenhouse effect and elevated sea levels. 

The early whales took to the sea in this warm, tropical climate. 

Behavior and Diet

Reconstruction of Pakicetus
Reconstruction of Pakicetus | Image via Carl Buell

Pakicetus was initially described as a semi-aquatic mammal, and many scientists still regard it this way. 

However, more recent studies have shown that it lived more on land than in the water but was also quite at home in the aquatic environment. 

Pakicetus had four fully functional legs similar to that of modern hoofed relatives like the hippos, so walking on land wouldn’t have been difficult. 

However, the Pakicetus’ feet probably had webs in between the fingers, which would have made it easier to use the limbs to paddle the water. 

This adaptation probably allowed Pakicetus to navigate along the edges of rivers, estuaries, and shallow coastal waters efficiently.

One of the unique attributes that tied the Pakicetus to present-day whales was their sensory features which suggest they may have been capable of hearing underwater. 

Pakicetus ambulocetus skeleton structure
Pakicetus ambulocetus skeleton structure | Hans Thewissen via Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons

Pakicetus had a structure known as an auditory bulla in its skull. 

This organ, formed by thickened bone, is a specialized auditory organ that makes hearing possible for cetaceans. 

Another crucial part of this auditory system is the mandibular foramen. 

This structure, located within the lower jaw of cetaceans, typically holds a fat pack that facilitates underwater hearing. 

The mandibular foramen of the Pakicetus was small, which means it lacked a fat pad. 

The hearing mechanism of this whale is an intermediate level between that of aquatic cetaceans and terrestrial mammals. 

Whales rely on their underwater auditory ability to communicate and form small family groups. 

Without such an advanced sensory system, it’s safe to assume that the Pakicetus was largely solitary. 

As an amphibious carnivore, Pakicetus was capable of hunting for food both on land and in the water. 

It could paddle or swim through shallow water in search of prey but could also hunt prey on land as well. 

It is also possible that this prehistoric whale ancestor had some digging ability as well. 

Pakicetus sketch
Pakicetus sketch | Alexandra 924 via Ideas Fandom

Pakicetus had a long snout with sharp teeth suggesting that it may have been adapted for catching small aquatic prey. 

It had a heterodont dentition which included premolars, molars, canines, and incisors. 

The Pakicetus’ diet may have included fish and other aquatic organisms living in muddy or sandy riverbeds and terrestrial habitats adjacent to the water body. 

Life Cycle

Like modern cetaceans and terrestrial mammals, Pakicetus likely reproduced sexually. 

Fertilization took place internally.

Female Pakicetus would then carry the fetus for a specific gestation period before giving birth to live young. 

Given the size of the Pakicetus, this prehistoric mammal’s gestation period was probably shorter than that of larger animals like present-day whales that tend to give birth to more fully developed offspring.

They probably gave birth on land instead of in the water like modern whales. 

Pakicetus | Image via Carl Buell

The young Pakicetus would be fully dependent on its parents for care and protection. 

As with most mammals, they were likely nursed by their mother during their early stages of development. 

The exact duration of the mother’s care before the juvenile would become independent isn’t fully known. 

However, we can assume that the Pakicetus young were fully dependent on the mother for at least a few months before they were capable of hunting and feeding on their own. 

Evolution and History

The evolution of the Pakicetus is an important milestone in the evolutionary history of present-day cetaceans, including whales, dolphins, and porpoises. 

This terrestrial mammal belongs to a group of early cetaceans called Archaeoceti

Members of this group are considered to be the oldest known whale ancestors, and the Pakicetus is one of the best-known members of this group. 

Pakicetus roaming in the ancient landscape
Pakicetus roaming in the ancient landscape | Image via Rare Gallery

The Pakicetius evolved from the same ancestors as land-living ungulates, such as pigs, hippos, and other members of the Artiodactyla order (odd-toed ungulates) about 53 million years ago. 

These early whale ancestors inhabited coastal regions, meaning they had access to land and aquatic habitats but spent more time on land. 

Over time, they developed adaptations that allowed them to spend more time in the water. 

This includes changes in their limb structure and the development of sensory organs that would facilitate hearing underwater. 

The Pakicetus’ long snout and sharp teeth were adaptations for catching fish and small aquatic prey in its habitats.

Over the next 15 million years, the early cetaceans would evolve further into new forms with more specialized adaptations for aquatic life. 

For instance, later Archaeoceti members, such as Ambulocetus and Rodhocetus, showed greater aquatic adaptations. 

Ambolucetus | Nobu Tamura via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

They had streamlined bodies, elongated limbs resembling flippers, and a reduced pelvis.

The basilosaurids showed even greater aquatic adaptations and are considered the direct ancestors of modern cetaceans. 

It is worth noting that cetaceans aren’t the only terrestrial mammals known to have returned to aquatic life. 

This has happened at least seven times in different groups of terrestrial mammals, giving rise to up to 100 mammal species still living in oceans all over the world. 

Other groups apart from the cetaceans include the pinnipeds (sea lions and walruses) and Sirenia (manatees and dugongs). 

Interactions With Other Species

The Early Eocene ecosystem where the Pakicetus lived was teeming with diverse life. 

The proximity of this region to coastal areas also meant that the region supported various marine and terrestrial life. 

3D model of Pakicetus
3D model of Pakicetus | Петр Меньшиков via Wikimedia Commons

Pakicetus was a carnivorous predator. 

In the water, it hunted fish and other small aquatic organisms using its sharp teeth. 

On land, it targeted smaller mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects that were abundant in the subtropical forests and wetlands of the Early Eocene where it lived.

But Pakicetus itself likely faced predators from other large carnivores in its ecosystem. 

This would have included other terrestrial predators, such as early carnivorous mammals on land as well as crocodiles that lived along the edge of the Tethys Sea during the Eocene Epoch.

Some of these predators also occupied the same ecological niche as the Pakicetus, meaning they would have competed for the same food sources and other resources. 

Cultural Significance

Pakicetus canada
Pakicetus canada | Kevin Guertin via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0

Although it is relatively small and unassuming, the Pakicetus is one of the most fascinating fossils ever discovered, mainly because it looked nothing like its present-day descendants. 

Yet, it is a crucial find that answers crucial questions about how the cetaceans transitioned from terrestrial ancestors to fully-marine forms. 

Before the discovery of the Pakicetus, many scientists still found it difficult to accept that modern whales descended from fully terrestrial ancestors. 

Riddles like this are common in the evolutionary history of various animal groups, and the discovery of transitional fossils that show intermediate characteristics helps to put these debates to rest. 

This is why the discovery of the Pakicetus in 1983 had a profound impact on the scientific understanding of the day. 

Initially, it was considered a semi-aquatic animal that divided its time between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. 

But the discovery of even more complete fossils in 2001 led scientists to reconsider the likely lifestyle of these mammals and reclassify it as fully terrestrial whale ancestors. 

It is the oldest whale-like ancestor, and its discovery helped scientists to properly place the other whale ancestors and trace their journey as they evolved towards a semi-aquatic and fully aquatic lifestyle. 

Pakicetus skeleton structure in a museum
Pakicetus skeleton structure in a museum | Cangadoba via Wikipedia

Although it is not as well-known to the general public as other prehistoric animals, the Pakicetus is an iconic symbol that contributes to the public understanding of evolution in general. 

It is commonly featured in educational materials, documentaries, and scientific illustrations to explain the evolution of cetaceans from land-dwelling mammals to the aquatic forms we are more familiar with today.  


Pakicetus was a small to medium-sized mammal that lived in parts of Pakistan during the Eocene Epoch about 50 million years ago. 

Although it was largely terrestrial, the Pakicetus is considered one of the oldest members of the cetacean family. 

This makes it one of the ancient ancestors of modern whales, dolphins, and porpoises.  

Pakicetus represents an important transitional stage in the evolutionary history of whales as they transitioned from terrestrial mammals to fully aquatic species. 

The discovery of this primitive whale ancestor has helped scientists answer crucial questions about the evolution of whales.

It also demonstrates the incredible diversity of life that has existed over the course of geological time. 


Who discovered Pakicetus?

The first Pakicetus fossil was discovered by American Paleontologist Philip Gingerich. 

Did dolphins evolve from Pakicetus?

Yes. Whales and dolphins share a common ancestry. 

They both evolved from terrestrial ancestors, and the Pakicetus is the oldest whale ancestor identified so far. 


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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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