Since the times of Aristotle, mass strandings of whales have puzzled people. Modern-day strandings can be investigated and their causes, often human-related, identified. Events that happened millions of years ago, however, are far harder to analyze—frequently leaving their cause a mystery. A team of Smithsonian and Chilean scientists examined a large fossil site of ancient marine mammal skeletons in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile—the first definitive example of repeated mass strandings of marine mammals in the fossil record. The site reflected four distinct strandings over time, indicating a repeated and similar cause: toxic algae. The team's findings will be published Feb. 26 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The site was first discovered during an expansion project of the Pan-American Highway in 2010. The following year, paleontologists from the Smithsonian and Chile examined the fossils, dating 6-9 million years ago, and recorded what remained before the site was paved over.
The team documented the remains of 10 kinds of marine vertebrates from the site, named Cerro Ballena—Spanish for "whale hill." In addition to the skeletons of the more than 40 large baleen whales that dominated the site, the team documented the remains of a species of sperm whale and a walrus-like whale, both of which are now extinct. They also found skeletons of billfishes, seals and aquatic sloths.
What intrigued the team most, however, was how the skeletons were arranged. The skeletons were preserved in four separate levels, pointing to a repeated and similar underlying cause. The skeletons' orientation and condition indicated that the animals died at sea, prior to burial on a tidal flat.
Effects of Toxic Algae
Today, toxins from harmful algal blooms, such as red tides, are one of the prevalent causes for repeated mass strandings that include a wide variety of large marine animals.