Chile’s Whale Graveyard

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The excavation of Chile’s Cerro Ballena to make way for the Pan-American Highway exposed over 40 complete and partial marine mammal skeletons (Image source: cerroballena.si.edu)

Chile’s Cerro Ballena (or “whale hill”) has really earned its name. An extension to the Pan-American Highway cutting through the notoriously fossil laden hill unearthed a treasure trove of whale remains recently. The digging revealed over 40 complete and partial skeletons of marine mammals, along with various other marine vertebrates.

According to the report in Proceedings B of the Royal Society, the fossils, which date back between 6 million and 9 million years, are the product of four mass strandings over the course of about 10,000 years. The site contains a variety of species, including rorqual whales, sperm whales, seals, aquatic sloths, walrus-whales, and predatory bony fish.

This find is particularly remarkable because whale fossils are pretty damn rare. And even more impressive, they’re not typically found en masse like this. Richard Norris, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told the Washington Post that finds like these “are vanishingly rare.”

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Pictures from the Cerro Ballena dig and the 3D data they collected can be viewed at the Smithsonian’s website by anyone, for free, just because. So do it. (Image source: cerrroballena.si.edu)

Removing whale fossils is also notoriously difficult, which posed a problem for this new find since it was sitting right in the path of a new highway. So to make up for any accidents that may occur during a speedy excavation, researchers created 3D digital records of the skeletons and their layouts using laser scanning. Because of Chile’s rapidly growing mining industry, the group only had two weeks to do their work, so once those 3D scans were complete, excavation began and the fossils were moved.

Most of the fossils showed signs of having died in the same way and had washed up pointing the same direction and upside down, suggesting most died at sea and then washed ashore where they were then buried. The group isn’t sure precisely what may have caused so many species to die in such spectacular numbers all in the same place, and over thousands of years. The prevailing hypothesis is that Cerro Ballena’s horde is the result of a harmful algal bloom, where algae bloom and release toxins into the environment. These toxins have caused similar mass strandings in the modern day, notably a string of 14 whales washing up over 5 weeks in Cape Cod from 1987-88. Evidence of dinoflagellate cysts were found in the area and help support the possibility that massive algal blooms led to the repeated mass strandings that created Chile’s remarkable whale graveyard.

The coolest part of all this? The Smithsonian decided to go ahead and throw all those 3D scans and other data up on their website, so everyone can look at their 3D models, flip through pictures, and take a virtual tour of the dig site. And the cherry on top? According to the site, the 3D scans can be downloaded and used with a 3D printer.  Now I don’t own a 3D printer, so I can’t attest to how well that works. But it’s there. And if it works, that means you could print your own fossil. Which is pretty damn cool.

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