Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Mysterious Whale Graveyard Of The Atacama Desert

While this image depicts whale bones from the Namibian Desert,
the bones are exactly the same size and shape as those found in the
Atacama Desert
After the giant reptiles of the Mesozoic era became extinct, the fish briefly regained dominance over the oceans. Yet their empire quickly came under threat when the first ever whales evolved. In just a few tens of millions of years, giant cetaceans such as Basilosaurus cruised through the oceans, preying upon all other creatures in the ecosystem. They were a diverse group of marine mammals. Now palaeontologists have found a fossil site littered with the bones of these ancient beasts.

You would not expect to find the remains of water dwellers in the middle of the Atacama desert, the  driest 105,000 square kilometres on Earth. Only micro-organisms are able to survive the extreme conditions here, on the outskirts. The centre of the desert is devoid of life, even archaea. Nevertheless a team of scientists from the Smithsonian Museum have discovered more than 75 skeletons, some as big as a bus, including 20 complete specimens.

The site was described as having unparalleled diversity, the sun-baked sands giving up the bones of adult and juvenile baleen whales, a walrus-whale, an extinct species of sperm whale and dolphin, and the remains of a seal or possibly a sea-lion. Similar sites have been found in Peru and Egypt. However these specimens from the Atacama desert were of a superior quality. The team believe that the sea originally covered this specific area around 5 to 7 million years ago.

As the temperature increased, the water retreated, leaving the whales stranded in lagoons or flooded wadis. They also believe that a landslide could have had a similar effect. Either way, the water sources dried up completely, leaving the whales high and dry, unable to defend themselves against the ravaging effects of the sun, or from scavengers and large predators. There will probably be future excavations. The site may yet reveal important new fossils or even an unknown species of whale.