National Geographic News
 A team of Smithsonian and Chilean scientists examined a large fossil site of ancient marine mammal skeletons in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile.

Researchers from the Smithsonian work with Chilean scientists to document one of more than 40 fossil baleen whale skeletons in the Atacama Desert in 2011.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JORGE AREVALO

Jane J. Lee in Honolulu

National Geographic

Published February 27, 2014

Ever since a highway construction crew in Chile uncovered a fossil graveyard of some 40 prehistoric whales in 2010, with skeletons dating back more than five million years, scientists have wondered why so many giant animals died in one place.

This week, a team of them proposed an answer: The huge baleen whales were felled by microscopic algae.

Toxins produced by prehistoric algal blooms could have been potent enough to kill off massive numbers of marine animals, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The fossil site, uncovered by a road crew working on a stretch of Pan-American highway in the Atacama Desert, has yielded complete and nearly complete fossil baleen whale skeletons, including calves and adults.

Nicholas Pyenson, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and colleagues write in their paper that mass mortality events occurred repeatedly over a period of 10,000 to 16,000 years in the late Miocene epoch, between 11 and 5 million years ago.

The baleen whales likely died out at sea, the study says, before waves washed their bodies ashore. The dead whales settled in a protected area that kept the carcasses safe from scavenging and allowed for their preservation.

The Atacama fossils were arranged in four distinct layers, suggesting a recurring cause for these mass deaths, says Pyenson, the lead study author.

These ancient baleen whales are ancestors to a modern-day group of whales that includes blue whales—the largest living animal on Earth—and humpback whales.

A complete fossil rorqual from Cerro Ballena in 2011.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SMITHSONIAN 3D
The head end of the most complete baleen whale fossil in the Atacama Desert in 2011.

Brought Down by Algae?

Algal blooms occur when microscopic algae—the oldest members of the plant kingdom—grow in such high numbers that they can turn the ocean red. That's why they're also called red tides, explains David Caron, an expert on algal blooms at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

What makes an algal bloom harmful is the presence of algal species that produce toxins like domoic acid, which can cause paralysis and death in mammals and birds.

Today filter feeders—anchovies or clams, for example—can ingest the toxin-filled algae, concentrating the chemicals in their tissues. Predators like sea lions, whales, or birds eat those fish and clams and get hit with concentrated doses. If the predators eat enough of the toxin, they can develop problems.

There is evidence of ancient harmful algal blooms, Pyenson says.

"A colony of seabirds was wiped out in the fossil record in Florida," he says, thanks to a bloom of toxic dinoflagellates—a type of microscopic algae—about five to three million years ago.

Because the researchers working at the Chilean site also found fossil remains of seals, an extinct species of sperm whale, an aquatic sloth, and billfish, they discounted the possibility that a virus or some other disease was the culprit.

That’s because marine diseases tend to be host specific, meaning they infect a single species or a group of closely related species. A morbillivirus plaguing dolphins on the U.S. East Coast in recent years is one modern example.

Watch What You Eat

Pyenson acknowledges that the fossils in the ancient Chilean graveyard contain herbivores and carnivores, which wouldn't be eating the same things.

But he points to modern-day examples of herbivores like manatees dying from harmful algal blooms, either by inhaling the toxins or by eating sea grasses covered in the algae.

It's possible that herbivores in the vicinity of carnivores in an ancient Pacific Ocean died of the same ultimate cause, Pyenson says.

The theory has present-day analogues, says Caron, who was not involved in the study.

"There's certainly thousands of sea lion deaths, dozens to hundreds of dolphins, untold hundreds of pelicans that all have been wiped out with the same toxic event," he says.

Caron says the idea that algal blooms killed off Chile’s ancient baleen whales is feasible.

They're like cancer, he explains, in that there are many kinds of cancers and likely many reasons that cancers occur.

It's the same with harmful algal blooms. Not every algal species produces toxins, and not every toxic alga produces harmful substances every time, Caron says.

Marine algae undergo boom-and-bust cycles, explains Caron, so harmful algal blooms do occur repeatedly. But scientists are still trying to figure out what sets them off.

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

31 comments
Venesha Gonzales
Venesha Gonzales

I cannot believe this was the forum that this guy picked to preach, they have churches for that. This is science.

Michel Baecke
Michel Baecke

It (hell) is a "spiritual place of intense suffering, you SAY!

Welcome to earth Travis.

You bible "thumpers" should find a sense of humour somewhere.

I guess you were there when your god planned all this; don't forget that the bible was written by man (no women has ever dared to create such, they know better, I heard that your god is a woman. LOL

Besides what does this all have to do with wales that died millions of years ago from a tiny algue.

Michel Baecke
Michel Baecke

yeow Travis;

You say Jesus is the creator?

And why shouldn't your God have been a scientist, the earth was his project; then he created man and realized that his project went to hell! So he made earth hell, why create another one if you have one at hand.

ZEINEB MESSAOUDI
ZEINEB MESSAOUDI

rien ne dure, tout fini par disparaitre d'une façon ou d'une autre, c'est une leçon pour nous pauvre vaniteux inconscients de notre fragilité.

Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper

Bahaha! You gotta be kidding me. How far out do they have to reach to stay away from the obvious answer? There was water there at one point. They would have fossilized by laying around after washing up on shore. For FAMILIES to suddenly be fossilized they would need to be suddenly BURIED. Maybe there was, oh I don't know, a world wide food? A catastrophe the world had never seen where water crashed from above and below. Where the earth quaked and split, mountains forming. And why 5,000,000 years? Where'd they get that number? Carbon dating? That's a joke. How do they know how long it takes rock to firm? Guesses.

Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper

I was merely answering questions posed to me. I'm surprised that a Floridian would say (in the "freest" nation in the world) that I should keep my faith locked inside a building. Why can't science and faith be interlocked? Evolution is bind faith in a theory as well as the guesses of the ages of things we dig up.

We all have the same evidence. It's the interpretation that I was originally pointing out. I didn't preach, but I don't mind answering questions and statements directed at me.

Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper

I was just answering your question, my friend. Like I said, all interpretation of facts is based on faith because no one was there. If you believe there is no God, you will interpret the evidence accordingly. I have faith that God is who He said He is and that the Bible, though written by men, is inspired by Him.

Again, I have never in my life "thumped" a Bible. But I do read it and trust it and take it as truth by faith just as many take the theory of evolution or age of rock, bone, etc by faith.

Is there God? Believe what you want, but one of us has to be right.

Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper

Michel, the earth is not "hell". Basically, at some point in eternity, God had a thought. And here we are. He created all things and made them good- that included mankind. But man He made in a different way. He made them (us) in His own image. He made them (us) separate from the animals; He made them (us) eternal- with a spirit. Man had and still has free will. We chose, even then, in utopia and prefect harmony, to reject Him and for that we were cursed.

BUT, God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (Jesus) that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

See, we have the two choices: everlasting life or everlasting death. Eternal death is the forever separation from God. It (Hell) is a spiritual place of intense suffering. That was never God's desire for us.

Damon Hicks
Damon Hicks

@Travis Cooper well carbon dating isn't reliable past 10 or so thousand years so no i don't think they used carbon dating, they probably used another rock based dating system.  Don't whales beach themselves in our day, why would that not be a likely hypothesis...not that mass toxic buildup isn't plausible.

Yogesh Agharkar
Yogesh Agharkar

@Travis Cooper  

He made us a different way??? we follow the same life / death pattern as other Living things.

The existence never fades. we transform from Living cells to dead cells. why give privilege to someone to be his "Only Son" if he created the universe? No disrespect at all...is god different from transformation?  the concept of change- single cell to multicellular, Hydrogen to Helium is existence- is god. 

Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper

But, how would you KNOW that carbon dating is reliable in the first place? Yes, you give it the same things to date and it spits back information that contradicts itself is a dead giveaway, but how would you know in the first place if something is 10,000 years old? You and I weren't there to be positive. It's guesswork. The same as any rock dating system. They theorize how long something took to form, first assuming that everything has always been the same, constant. It's all guesses that are passed along as fact.

Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper

If you believe there is no God, no "creator", you will interpret the facts based on your belief. And vice versa.

Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper

How does anyone "know"? It's all based on faith. No one can go back millions, thousands, or even hundreds of years. We can't go back to 1 second ago. All we can do is look at historical records and interpret them by faith. We weren't there, so we don't know. Your interpretation has everything to do with your world view.

Jayesh Shah
Jayesh Shah

@Travis Cooper  

Herein lies the basic problem of the religion of the books. They insist that one of us has to be right. Since you accept that God had a thought initially, which is the same in Dharmic religions like Hinduism, Jainism etc, then the point of divergence in this very violent concept that "I am right" which is human. The Euopeans went and massacred 60 Million Ethnic American Indians if you know apart from countless other people around the world, which now the Amis do in the name of anti terrorism and Oil. 


In Dharmic religions we went by the precept that your viewpoint is also right because the same spirit abides in all of us. Instead of just blindly saying i Have Faith, learn to be less presumptuous about other faiths. that is true openness. We do not say you need to believe in us to be a true Christian, but we say a true Christian is equally at ease with other belief systems. Because even you cannot say for definite that Jesus did happen, and whether he really was son of God. We in India believe we are all sons and daughters of the same one Spirit. It behooves you to therefore really see how restricted your view point is.

Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper

Like I said, all interpretation of facts is based on faith because no one was there. If you believe there is no God, you will interpret the evidence accordingly. I have faith that God is who He said He is and that the Bible, though written by men, is inspired by Him. I do read it and trust it and take it as truth by faith just as many take the theory of evolution or age of rock, bone, etc by faith.

Jesus was never called the Son until He was born on earth, but took on that role in submission to the Father. They are three in One. Read Genesis to see God referring to Himself as "Us".

Is there God? Believe what you want, but one of us has to be right.

Jayesh Shah
Jayesh Shah

@Supercharger Von @Yogesh Agharkar @Travis Cooper  


Hi Travis, before the Bible was there were the Vedas and the Gita and the Jain Sutras. The Bible story is very similar to some of the stories that the British came to India (and they came to India because it was rich, very knowledgable and possessed things that the Europeans dreamt about, including sanitation and piped water) and said were myths. What Yogesh is trying to say probably is from that view point. Look up "Anekantvada". The Bible and The Quran both are exclusive ideas that suggest that only if I accept Lord Jesus, shall I enter the domain of G_D called Heaven. If G_D is the one who does all of this, pray think why he does not make every child take birth in a Christian Home or in the case of Islam, in Muslim homes. Relax, the world needs open thinkers and we all have a right to our opinions and post. It is typical of the WASP mindset as well as the European mindset to think that they have a right to be superior. Look around, the world is really changing. He did say no disrespect? IF you ask Yogesh to  first read the Bible, then did you read the Vedas, the Gita, the Upanishad, the Agam Sutras, the Panini Treatises, the ............


Before the idea of the Immaculate Conception came, we had in the Mahabharata, someone called Mother Kunti who begot sons from Gods. This is one spiritual place, and we all are spirits.

Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper

I have never put a Bible in someone's face and slapped, thumped, or anything. Why would I take that as a compliment? You don't have to believe the Bible is truth. My initial point was to say that they (mainstream scientists) seem to run to every other possibility except historical accounts from the Bible.

I never put words in God's mouth. If it seemed like I was, I apologize. I wasn't there when those whales died, but I can theorize as well. The interpretation of the evidence is based on the interpreter's worldview. That's the point.

Note also that I have not, in any way, insulted anyone or tried to demean them for their different points of view and yet that is almost always the first thing they do. I'm not saying you did.

Jayesh Shah
Jayesh Shah

@Travis Cooper  


I Am = Amen  = AMIN = AUM


Aum is the mother word. I have travelled the world, and seen some of the things that are done and they are all so similar. 


We are one kind - no matter whether you are a believer in Jesus or not? Faith works for some, Science works for some, and for some both work.


Current molecular physics points out to multiple dimensions, and the fact that both Space and Time are constructs.


These ideas were already visited about 5000 years back in the Hindu, Jain and other philosophies. 


We are the creators and the co-creators of the bliss and the mess that exists in our world, and we do not need to put it in the hands of a punishing God.


If you do not believe in one fact, then how can you believe that there even was Jesus to begin with? 


Jesus happened and happened for the good but let us not make him someone special. Because the moment we accord him a super natural status, we then cop out of the fact that we as humans can do.


He was very much human, very much a loving man, and all the Church has done is to use him as a marketing tool to make money and dis-possess others. The initial propagators were all smart mercenary Romans who saw a good idea and said let us skin these people.


Grow up. It is a good thing to do. At the same time do not give up your innocence because you can only enter the gates of heaven as a child. For us,  heaven is here on earth. And I would like to share that will all that matter, not quote the Bible when discussing how whales died. Conjecture is an important part of trying to understand. 


Love

Damon Hicks
Damon Hicks

@Travis Cooper I have seen many people "thump" bibles when preaching. They hold the bible while preaching and slap the cover while saying something about the answer to life's problems are inside. That is where, in my opinion, the term came from. So what they mean when they call you a bible thumper is that you are pointing to the bible as an answer to a question. Some people mean it as a derogatory statement but if you are religious then take it as a compliment, it means you're doing your job. But please refrain from putting words in Gods mouth or trying to take every life event and say it proves a verse in the bible is right cause it is possibility. Cause if you shout flood and this event had nothing to do with the flood, then it just weakens the actual evidence of biblical proofs. But with everyone screaming wolf then no one will believe when verifiable proof of biblical principals does show up. Take for instance the 9-10 thousand year old plans found for an ark that were recently discovered. Just saying that might be a better forum to point to the bible account of the flood over a pile of bones on a beach that could have gotten there by any number of methods.


Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper

And, to be fair, I have never in my life 'thumped' a Bible. In fact, I don't believe I've ever met anyone who has 'thumped' a Bible. That would be an odd thing to do, I think.

Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper

Who said that science was faulty? I'm talking about the interpretations, not the scientific facts. There is a difference. I do not put any limits on God. He is the creator. He always was, is, and will be. He introduced himself as "I AM". God can do what He wants in any way He chooses. And to save people from their own destruction He became THE sacrifice needed to justify His own wrath on an evil people. Jesus is the Creator and the Living God.

He can do what He wants and He chose a certain way to preserve His Word. You can count on it. But, like I said earlier, it's all about faith.

Jayesh Shah
Jayesh Shah

@Travis Cooper  


Travis, do you know you are someone's son? And he was someone;s son to ad Infinitum? If you only have Faith then God must really help you, is it not? Human kind did not start 6600 years back, because we have historical evidence of cities at least 5000 years back. So yes, carbon dating must be valid. It is certainly good to have faith and if you really want to see Faith working take a tour of India during one of their big fairs called the Kumbh Mela. You will be astonished to say the least.

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