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Chile: Fossil whales in desert mystery solved

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) - 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.

Scientists say the skeletons show the animals were poisoned by toxins some 5 million to 11 million years ago and "died at sea, prior to burial on a tidal flat."

"Based on the orientation of the skeletons and other information, these whales likely died from harmful algae blooms, which we know in the modern world can be a killer," Pyenson said.

Algae blooms can create poisons that can be ingested or inhaled causing organ failure in marine mammals. Blooms are common along coasts and are enriched by nutrients like iron carried by rivers into the ocean. Scientists say that for more than 20 million years, runoff from the iron-rich Andes mountains has created ideal conditions for harmful algae blooms along South America's western coast.

"The key for us was its repetitive nature at Cerro Ballena," Pyenson said. "No other plausible explanation in the modern world would be recurring, except for toxic algae, which can recur if the conditions are right."

With funding from the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian team used sophisticated photography and laser scanners to create an online archive of 3-D images of the whales and they made life-size models before the site was covered by the highway. The fossils themselves were put in museums in Santiago and the northern Chilean city of Caldera.


Associated Press videographer Bill Gorman in Washington contributed to this report.


Study's 3-D scans: www.cerroballena.si.edu

Team's report: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/281/1781/20133316.full?sid=48db7d99-30b0-4766-8daf-6c5de22c061e


Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao

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edritzer March 07 2014 at 7:49 AM

ahhhhh.. whales breath air.. hello.... the only connection I can think of is that maybe their food source died from lack of oxygen and they starved to death?

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a_alberga March 07 2014 at 10:37 AM

Why is it that almost every comment on the above column talks about low oxygen levels in the water as the cause of the deaths of the whales and other sea mammals? I went back and re-read the text several times and NOT ONCE was oxygen level mentioned as a possible cause of the die-off. In fact the word "oxygen" never appeared in the text.

The certain alga blooms could have caused the problem because they release toxins into the water. The whales ingest water when they eat. Also the smaller life forms the whales live on also concentrate the toxins. For the 90%+ of the commenters, the word "toxin" is defined as something which is "poison" to at least some forms of life.

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1 reply
Beautiful a_alberga March 07 2014 at 10:43 AM

People don't read, they just rant their narrow minded opinions.

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rob000000 March 07 2014 at 3:32 PM

Has the left finally found something for which they will not blame President Bush?

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2 replies
frozenbull rob000000 March 07 2014 at 3:39 PM

It's early in this story . I'm sure a Bush hater will come up with something . Come on all you Bush haters Think !!!!!!!

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2 replies
ga7smi frozenbull March 07 2014 at 4:10 PM

glad you admit that Bush haters can think

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rdubindy frozenbull March 07 2014 at 5:10 PM

he is only responsible for being the worst press ever

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ga7smi rob000000 March 07 2014 at 4:09 PM


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dsprdo95 March 07 2014 at 2:57 PM

I've read the story several times and nowhere does it say that the oxygen in the water was depleted. It does say that the toxins may have been INHALED, inhaled being the key word. Algae blooms are a major source of airborne toxins as coastal Floridians can attest. It can be pure hell being downwind from an algae bloom.

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5 replies
chuck March 07 2014 at 2:15 PM

this is cool

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carolyn9m March 07 2014 at 1:28 PM

Funny thing about us dummies is we accidently have a thought process and a sense of reasoning. We have had major climate changes over the millenniums. Our land mass changed we have had an ice age and world flooding and non of the agents that are being blamed for it didn't exist tens of thousands of years ago. The pendulum swings back and force. Mankind d is learning they aren't in control of everything.

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1 reply
cqdeed carolyn9m March 07 2014 at 1:47 PM

The Liberal portion of Mankind is not doing any of the learning. They are blaming every degree of temperature change on man because they do not believe in Mother Nature. Mother Nature is in the same catagory as God to them.

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wlh1923 March 07 2014 at 12:19 PM

For the incredible procession of idiots on here who have taken up the moronic chant - "Nope, acquatic mammals are air breathing" you are all idiots. Fish, mammals or otherwise, exposed to the poisonous algae bloom are killed because they ingest the stuff. Some fish suffocate because the oxygen content in the water is low. Dolphin, whales and other animals are also affected and killed by the toxic bloom

Whales eat plankton bathed in the stuff. It enters their mouths through their baleen filter systems and is ingested with the plankton.

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1 reply
Karen wlh1923 March 07 2014 at 12:35 PM

Insane, aren't they?

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gillhooley1 March 07 2014 at 11:44 AM

Nope Aquatic Mammals are air breathing! Duh!

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haldey March 07 2014 at 11:17 AM

I agree that whales have no gills and could not die from poorly oxygenated water. The video has it wrong. However the story below the video explains the algae blooms created toxins that poisoned the whales. This is plausible. Whoever did the video slanted the report incorrectly.

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David Woodruff March 07 2014 at 10:26 AM

Why do whales need oxygen in water to breathe? Did they have gills?

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