Whale Graveyard in Chilean Desert Explained

whale graveyard

A massive whale graveyard in Chile was discovered back in 2010 by construction workers widening the Pan American Highway, Chile’s main north-south road. They uncovered the massive whale graveyard that would come to be known as Cerro Ballena, Whale Hill. The site is located half a mile from the Pacific shore and 44 miles north of Santiago. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institutes and Chilean Universities began their dig in 2011. Since then they have preserved over 40 skeletons of various marine mammals like Rorqual Whales, predatory bony fish, sperm whales, seals, aquatic sloths and a walrus toothed whale.

Funded by The National Geographic Society, the team used sophisticated photographing equipment and laser scanners to create a 3-D archive of all the fossils found. They were also able to make life-size 3-D models of the massive creatures. When the site was first discovered researchers could only speculate as to what might have caused such a large number of creatures to have died off in a concentrated area. Large skeletal deposits like the one found in Chile are known as mass standings and have been found all over the world. Cerro Ballena in particular is considered to be one of the largest collections of marine fossils ever found. Most of the mass standings discovered have been of land dwelling creatures. Cerro Ballena is a unique exhibit of life at sea in various epochs, The whale graveyard has great examples of the evolutionary diversity.

whale graveyard

Recently the researching team has published their findings in the proceedings of The Royal Society Journal. The team of scientist from both Chile’s universities and Smithsonian Institutes state that poisonous algae is likely the cause of the mass standings. The remains of the mammals were belly up, which lead researchers to believe the animals had died before they settled on Cerro Ballena mudflats. Another clue that lead researcher to algae as being the cause was its proximity to the iron rich Andes mountains.

Heavy rain can carry iron run-offs to drain into the ocean feeding algal growth. The team says millions of years ago heavy rains caused iron from the Andes mountains to run-off into the western coastline. The algae was ingested by contaminated prey or inhaled. In high concentration the algae can cause organ failure in marine mammals. “In modern times algal blooms can be triggered by human activities such as water runoff laced with fertilizer.” Nick Pyenson the Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History said in an interview for Smithsonian Magazine.

The marine mammals died and sank to a mudflat at the bottom of the ocean where they were covered and fossilized over millions of years, the flats then rose 130 feet to the surface causing the dry stretch of land known today as the Atacama Desert. The majority of the fossils are dated to the late Miocene Epoch, approximately six to nine million years ago and are now on display in museums in Santiago and Caldera. The whale graveyard was a great find for the scientific community, providing a rich source of material to study and with today’s technology an important archaeological find can now be cataloged and available for the world to see.

By Eric Ohm

International Business Times

SFGate

Proceedings of the Royal Society

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