Back in 2010 researchers in Chile discovered an extinct species of whale in their own backyard, well their carcasses anyways. During an expansion project for the 2010 Pan-American highway, multiple bones were seen sticking out of the ground at a site nearby. The site has since become the center of attention for paleontologists around the world.
The site, located in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile, became well-known for preserving those bones after the discovery. It was not until 2011 when researchers were actually allowed to conduct their research albeit for just a short duration. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History along with a couple of Chilean researchers had two weeks to carry out their research before work on the highway resumed. Their research revealed that the bones belonged to an extinct species of baleen whale that lived almost 5 million years ago. For this very reason the site also came to be known as Cerro Ballena or Whale Hill.
Certain other fossil species along with the whales were also discovered. Out of the total fossils three belonged to a species of seals, one belonged to a dolphin that had developed walrus like features, one of an aquatic sloth along with some billfish skeletons.
The bones were actually found 120 feet above sea level and almost a mile from the ocean. This brings the question of how these skeletons found their way to Chile’s Atacama Desert a mile away from the ocean? Experts state that the bodies might have washed up into an estuary and were gradually buried by sand which over time fossilized.
The arrangement of these fossils was also observed to better understand the different species. All the bones in these fossils were complete and were preserved in four separate layers. This pattern was repeated in almost all the fossils found in the nearby area hinting towards a similar cause of death for the marine animals. There is even evidence to suggest that these deaths were caused over a period of thousand years instead of it being a spontaneous and continuous occurrence.
The best explanation available so far is that Chile’s backyard neighbors might have been poisoned by ingesting an algal bloom that generated a fatal toxin. It either entered their system through direct contact or by consuming infected animals or prey that came in contact with the algae. All the marine animals were part of the same ecosystem which made them susceptible and vulnerable to the algae’s effects.
Although plausible, the explanation cannot be completely justified due to lack of concrete evidence. A close study of the nearby sediments failed to locate any distinct fragments of algae hence a direct link could not be established. Certain grains were however discovered in iron oxide sediments which seem to suggest past algal activity. Until there is proof to suggest otherwise, death by toxin will continue to be the accepted cause of death among the paleontologist community.
Regardless of how the fossils got there the site, as many believe, will most definitely be a paleontologist goldmine. Nick Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History stated Cerro Ballena is definitely a paleontological treasure. It might even be at par with the La Brea Tar Pits that famous for preserving countless extinct mammoth and megafauna fossils. According to Pyenson there could be countless more fossils hidden in Chile’s backyard just waiting to be discovered.
By Hammad Ali