Chile: Fossil Whales in Desert Mystery Solved

By Henao, Luis Andres | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), March 2, 2014 | Go to article overview

Chile: Fossil Whales in Desert Mystery Solved


Henao, Luis Andres, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


SANTIAGO, Chile * Scientists investigating a graveyard of marine mammal fossils near Chile's northern coast say toxins generated by algae blooms most likely poisoned the animals millions of years ago.

The study by a team of Chilean and Smithsonian Institution scientists was published Wednesday in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The experts traveled to Chile's Atacama region in 2011 to unearth one of the world's best-preserved graveyards of prehistoric whales. Their findings help solve a mystery about how dozens of whales and other marine mammals congregating off South America's Pacific Coast died only to emerge again atop a desert hill over a half mile from the surf.

"There are hundreds of whale skeletons yet to be found," said Nick Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. "This is a site on par with Dinosaur National Monument here in the United States, a whole hillside littered with dinosaur skeletons. We seem to have the same thing except with whales here in Chile."

The remains were first found by construction workers in 2010 during the widening of the Pan American Highway, or Route 5, which is Chile's main north-south road. Other unusual creatures found at the "Cerro Ballena," or Whale Hill, site include an extinct aquatic sloth and a walrus-like toothed whale. …

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