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Published: Wednesday March 5, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday March 5, 2014 MYT 8:01:26 AM

Solved - mystery of ancient whale graveyard

Palaeontologists studying fossil whale skeletons at the site in Chile. Scientists have concluded that toxic seaweed could be one of the prevalent causes for repeated prehistoric whale mass strandings. - EPA/Royal Society

Palaeontologists studying fossil whale skeletons at the site in Chile. Scientists have concluded that toxic seaweed could be one of the prevalent causes for repeated prehistoric whale mass strandings. - EPA/Royal Society

Scientists believe creatures died and were washed ashore in Chile.

FOSSILISED whales unearthed in a mass graveyard in Chile died in four separate strandings over a period of 10,000 years, scientists believe.

The skeletons of dozens of baleen whales were found in ancient sandstones beside the Pan-American Highway in the Atacama region of northern Chile, where they are thought to have lain undetected for between six and nine million years.

In an article published in the Royal Society journal, researchers explain that the animals ingested toxic algae before being washed into an estuary and, eventually, on to flat sands at the site dubbed Cerro Ballena (“whale hill”).

Nicholas Pyenson, a palaeontologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, told the BBC:

“We found extinct creatures such as walrus whales – dolphins that evolved a walrus-like face. And then there were these bizarre aquatic sloths.

“To me, it’s amazing that in 240 metres of road-cut, we managed to sample all the superstars of the fossil marine-mammal world in South America in the Late Miocene. Just an incredibly dense accumulation of species.”

Cerro Ballena was famed locally for its hidden ancient skeletons – but the latest discovery was made by chance during construction work on the busy Pan-American Highway that runs alongside the area, which is now seen as one of the richest fossil sites in the world.

Many of the fossils were found in perfect condition, with the skeletons of two adult whales laid on top of the skeleton of a juvenile whale.

The remains of an extinct species of sperm whale, a walrus-like toothed whale, an aquatic sloth and two seals were also uncovered at the site, but scientists believe there may be hundreds more ancient creatures waiting to be discovered.

Sol Square, a palaeontologist who worked on the discovery, described the find as “a discovery of global importance”.

“There has never been a find of this size or this diversity anywhere in the world, which is one of the very special parts of the Atacama region.” — Guardian News & Media

Tags / Keywords: Science Technology, Science, marine mammals, Chile, mass graveyard, fossils

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