One hundred twenty feet above sea level is not the first place you’d expect to find signs of sea life, but that’s where highway workers found whale skeletons. According to a Feb. 25 report from the Washington Post, highway workers in northern Chile found the first skeletons while working. After discovering those, they contacted a nearby museum. Scientists then discovered 40 whale skeletons in four separate areas. The report says this indicates four ‘mass strandings”.
Most animals— an extinct species of sperm whale, a walrus-like toothed whale, an aquatic sloth and severe other species of whale were found—were found laying belly up, which suggests they died at sea or after washing ashore.
Nick Pyenson, the author of the paper describing the phenomenon, said the strandings were mostly likely caused by algal blooms known as the red tide. The rock formation where the skeletons were found is estimated to be around 6-9 million years ago, and the bones were dated in that time period as well.
The presence of whales isn’t unusual or even unexpected. It’s been known for years that whales once inhabited this part of the desert and it was thusly named “Cerro Ballena” or Whale Hill. But Pyseson says these whales are unique because the bones are all intact and there are no signs of scavenging before the bones became fossilized.
Paleontologist Richard Norris explains that whale fossils are not a common find and finding a large number of whales at different ages is “vanishingly rare.”