3D printing helps uncover mystery of Chile’s whale graveyard

Smithsonian paleobiologist Nick Pyenson uses cutting edge technology to unravel secrets behind 5-million-year-old whale fossils found in the Atacama Desert.

In late 2010, the discovery of an ancient whale graveyard in Chile’s Atacama Desert made international headlines. Not only were many of the 20 fossilized skeletons in great condition – they were also half a mile inland from the Pacific Coast.

Scientist’s could only guess why the animals died enmass and in close proximity to each other, and how they came to be in such a location. Prolonged analysis of the site came under threat as the expansionary roadworks for the Pan-American highway (work that led to the discovery of the graveyard in the first place) could be held up no-longer.

Paleontologists began encasing and shipping away several of the skeletons to museums in Chile and abroad. Some despaired as they knew dislodging the bones one by one from the site would make the story of how they came to be there all but impossible to uncover.

Smithsonian paleobiologist Nick Pyenson, one of the first scientists to study the site, came up with a radical idea to help preserve the information from the skeletons on site before their removal. Accompanied by the Smithsonian’s 3D digitization team of “laser cowboys” Vince Rossi and Adam Metallo, Pyenson went about meticulously mapping the whale skeletons with a laser scanner, capturing every inch and irregularity of the fossils, and feeding the information into a 3D printer that produced scale models of the 20 ft (6m) whales.

“Day and night, we passed the scanner back and forth,” Rossi recalled in the Smithsonian Magazine. “It was worth it.”

The site no longer contains the whale skeletons, yet the team has all the precious information they need to piece together how the phenomenon came to be.

“Animals die and are deposited in an environment of one kind or another,” Pyenson explained. “Knowing how they came to rest, the sediment they are buried in, whether they were scavenged, whether sharks bit them and what other bones are found nearby are among the most telling details for paleontologists.”

Theories of why the animals beached include a storm forcing them ashore or a cataclysmic tsunami running them inland. Pyenson has also been intrigued by red algae he has found on rock samples from the site; some algae blooms have been known to kill pods of present day whales.

At present, replicas of the skeletons are only a dozen or so inches in length, however the Smithsonian plans to team up with a 3D printing company this fall to print a full-scale version of one of the ancient whales, the largest of which is 26 ft (8 m) long.

A further discovery in late 2011 of upwards of 70 whale skeletons in the area prompted the Chilean government to protect 740-acres of the site from further expansion of the Pan-American highway. The area is now thought to contain more than 3,000 individual fossils and it considered on of the most important sites of its kind.