The Whale Graveyard in the Desert

By the side of the Pan-American Highway is the Atacama desert, a cool and arid region in northern Chile. The nearest water source is nearly half a mile away. So why on earth are there 75 whale skeletons beached in the sand?

No, this isn’t a modern art installation or some left over decorations from burning man festival, these are real.

These perfectly intact skeletons are of seemly ancient whales whose existence has been baffling archaeologists for several years. A team of scientists from the Smithsonian Institute came upon the fossils in 2015 and was staggered at their arrangement. They found at least 40 fully intact skeletons that were set side-by-side in the desert, with the arrangement measuring ‘the length of two football fields.’ This strange setup suggests that all of these whales died at the same time, but why?

Artists impression of a walrus whale

A clue lies in the full spread of species – not only are there the remains of wales, but also dolphins, a potential seal or sealion and ‘bizarre aquatic sloths’. The diversity of species was described by scientists as staggering – among the collection of bones were baleen whales, a walrus-whale (an extinct species where dolphins had developed walrus-like faces) and an extinct species of sperm whale. Some of these animals were as big as a bus.

Due to the variety of sea mammals, one theory is that all of these animals died millions of years ago during a mass beaching incident (where whales swim onto land, can’t get back into the water and die). Smithsonian researcher Nicholas Pyenson explains that the landscape may have once been a lagoon that became closed off from the Pacific Ocean. Subsequently, the animals either died when the lagoon dried up, or when a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or landslide sealed off the lagoon and stopped the animals from returning to the open ocean. 

Harmful algal blooms

Another theory is that all of the animals died simultaneously from ingesting toxic algae.[1]Such toxins can develop in certain algae blooms and appear to have taken out a substantial section of an eco-system; mass strandings today are commonly attributed to such toxic algae, where death is swift.

According to Dr Pyenson, “All the creatures we found – whether whales, seals or billfishes – fed high up in marine food webs and that would have made them very susceptible to harmful algal blooms.”

Subsequently, the animals’ bodies were washed into an estuary and then onto flat sands where they became buried over time.

Other similar whale graveyards exist in countries such as Egypt and Peru, but no sites are as well preserved, as diverse and mystifying as the whales of the Atacama Desert.

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Sources and Further Reading:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/the-tiny-culprit-behind-a-graveyard-of-ancient-whales

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26343894

https://theweek.com/articles/480019/mysterious-whale-graveyard-discovered-desert

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26343894

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