In the Atacama

Whale fossils discovered in Chile are of “global importance”

Close to 80 marine skeletons dating back seven million years have been unearthed in what paleontologists have described as an unprecedented find.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011  
The preserved marine skeletons were found in Chile's Atacama Desert. (Photo: gordontour/Flickr) The preserved marine skeletons were found in Chile's Atacama Desert. (Photo: gordontour/Flickr)

Long known for its clear skies and world class astronomical observatories, Chile’s Atacama Desert is now making headlines for a different type of scientific discovery.

Paleontologists have uncovered the world's largest grouping of whale fossils in the arid region in the country’s north.

Almost 80 marine fossils dating back seven million years have been found spread out over an area of 790 ft (240m) near the town of Bahía Inglesa. Other species discovered at the site include porpoises and a rare flat-faced dolphin.

The scientists say many of the remains are complete skeletons and considering their age, they are in remarkably good condition.

Among the fossils is what scientists believe is a prehistoric whale family made up of a male, a female and a baby, lying side by side.

Sol Squire, a paleontologist from the Smithsonian Institute, said it was very unusual to find such a large deposit of complete and near-complete whale skeletons.

“The whale discovery is of global importance,” he told local television station, TVN. “There has never been a find of this size or diversity anywhere in the world, which [makes this] one of the very special parts of the Atacama Region.”

The fossils were found at a site which locals have long called 'Whale Hill', near the northern part of Ruta 5 that runs the length of the country from north to south.

Marine skeletons were first discovered in the region when the road was being constructed back in the 1970s but were soon forgotten.

However, the director of the nearby Paleontological Museum of Caldera, Mario Suárez, raised concerns when plans were announced to widen the highway in 2010, prompting a renewed investigation.

“This is not just about what we can see here. It's like the tip of the iceberg,” Suárez said.

The Chilean government has halted work on the highway upgrade and established a 740-acre (300ha) protected zone around the whale graveyard.

It is believed that there could be up to 3,000 fossils scattered throughout the sandy, desert area which was covered by the ocean millions years of ago.

“This zone is one of the richest...the idea is to find species that have never been discovered before,” site manager John Vega told TVN.

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