By Henry Workman
In the Atacama Desert near Caldera, Chile, fossils of 75 prehistoric whales were discovered amid a highway construction project. Estimated at more than 2 million years old but remarkably intact, the remains were found in an unusual cluster no less than 800 meters (or ½ mile) from the ocean. Theories are accumulating on how the animals, including an extinct species of dolphin with walrus-like tusks, ended up there. Researchers suspect the presence of hundreds more, reports the Daily Mail, to be uncovered and further analyzed in hopes of gaining rare insight on an ancient aquatic environment.
Most of the species found so far have been identified as baleen whales, an order that includes modern humpbacks. It’s currently unclear how far apart the deaths took place, so scientists can’t be sure whether the site is the result of an isolated incident or a recurring phenomenon. One hypothesis with a fair amount of support holds that the disoriented whales beached themselves, while others posit that the area was once a lagoon that dried up with the whales still in it. An earthquake or landslide could account for a route back to the open ocean being blocked off, leaving the whales stranded.
No explanation so far, though, is backed up by solid evidence. If the area had been a lagoon, researchers would expect to find proof of drying such as crystallized salt, and if a storm wave was responsible for sweeping them inland, there would likely be signs of a disturbed ocean floor. Whatever the cause, the fossils were left within yards of one another within a strip about the size of two football fields.
Many of the specimens exceed 8 meters (25 feet) in length; at least 20 of them make up a complete skeleton. There have been sites in the past also containing whale fossils on now-dry land, though this one stands alone for being by far the most extensive, and for the superb condition in which the remains were preserved. The Atacama Desert has been established as an abundant source of marine fossils. Travelers using the nearby highway were able to see evidence of the site even before excavation in June 2010.
Analysis is currently underway via the Smithsonian Institution and cooperating Chilean scientists, with funding from the National Geographic Society. Fossils are being transported to the Museum of Paleontology in Caldera, while researchers from the Smithsonian are using new technology to create three-dimensional renderings of them. Studies at the site are coming to an end so that fossils can be removed from the path of the highway widening project, but research will continue for years into the future. Museum director Mario Suarez believes the discoveries yet to come could keep him working at the site for the rest of his career.
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Copyright © 2011 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC