Whale Skeletons, Other Fossils Discovered at Chilean Construction Site
November 20, 2011

Whale Skeletons, Other Fossils Discovered at Chilean Construction Site

A team of researchers from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History have been racing the clock to extract whale skeletons and other marine fossils from the Atacama Desert Region of northern Chile, according to published reports Friday.

According to Carolyn Gramling of Science Insider, experts from the Washington D.C.-based museum discovered more than 20 complete whale skeletons and approximately 80 individual specimens, in addition to other types of marine mammals, at a construction site near the Chilean port city of Caldera.

The fossils were initially discovered by contractors working on an expansion of the Pan-American Highway, who gave excavation coordinator/paleobiologist Nick Pyenson and his team until sometime in December to dig for and recover the specimens. They began working at the site in October, and according to a blog entry by Pyenson, Saturday was their final day on location.

Given the uncertain future of the site, the team brought in members of the Smithsonian's 3D Digitization program to create 1:1 scale images of entire fossil whale skeletons before removing them, Gramling added. The goal is to create a record of the site so that scientists can continue to learn from it, even if the site itself winds up demolished as part of the highway expansion project.

"What they're doing is using sophisticated long-range and high-resolution laser scanners," Pyenson told Science Insider. "My vision is that, with all this data, people could virtually go back to this site that no longer exists."

According to Eva Vergara of the Associated Press (AP), the origin of the fossils can be traced back to over two million years ago, during a time when "scores of whales" that lived off the Pacific Coast of South America "mysteriously met their end." Exactly how they died out and why their remains can now be found so close to each other remain unsolved mysteries, and it is one of the reasons that the Smithsonian researchers and local experts are so interested in the Atacama Desert site.

"I think they died more or less at the same time," Pyenson told Vergara. When asked by the AP report why so many of them might have met their end in the same general location, he responded, "There are many ways that whales could die, and we're still testing all those different hypotheses."

Pyenson said that the majority of the whale fossils are baleen whales, which measured approximately 25 feet in length. The AP also reports that the researchers also uncovered the skeleton of a sperm whale, as well as the remains of "a now-extinct dolphin that had two walrus-like tusks and previously had only turned up in Peru."

"Other unusual creatures found elsewhere in the fossil-rich Atacama Desert include an extinct aquatic sloth and a seabird with a 5-meter (17-foot) wingspan, bigger than a condor's," Vergara said, adding that the fossils are also being analyzed by workers at the Chile's National Museum of Natural History, and that no papers describing the excavations findings have yet been published.


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