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Fossil discovery solves whale stranding mystery

Large blooms of algae are the cause of whale standing deaths according to fossil evidence unearthed in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile by Nicholas Pyenson, paleontologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and colleagues from Chile that was presented in the Feb. 25, 2014, edition of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

In this photo, Chilean and Smithsonian paleontologists study several fossil whale skeletons at Cerro Ballena next to the Pan-American Highway in the Atacama Region of Chile in 2011.
In this photo, Chilean and Smithsonian paleontologists study several fossil whale skeletons at Cerro Ballena next to the Pan-American Highway in the Atacama Region of Chile in 2011.
Adam Metallo/Smithsonian Institution
From left to right, this photo shows Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi from the Smithsonian's Digitization Program Office 3-D Lab documenting one of the most complete fossil whales from the Cerro Ballena site.
From left to right, this photo shows Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi from the Smithsonian's Digitization Program Office 3-D Lab documenting one of the most complete fossil whales from the Cerro Ballena site.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The site named Cerro Ballena, Spanish for "whale hill”, presented the first known fossil evidence of mass whale stranding events that spanned 20 million years of time.

The orientation of the whale skeletons and the pattern of deposition of the skeletons indicate the whales died at sea and were washed onto the coast. The Atacama Desert was much closer to the Pacific Ocean at the time.

Four different stranding events have been unearthed in the same location. The fossils include baleen whales, sperm whales, seals, sloths, and other sea life.

The researchers conclude that the animals died at sea as the result of direct exposure to algal blooms or by the consumption of fish that contained the algae that are known to be toxic to most sea life.

The ancient documentation of whale stranding deaths due to toxic algal blooms correlates with the stranding events of modern times.