Scientists solve mystery of Chile's massive whale graveyard

The site, called Cerro Ballena, or "Whale Hill," was found by road workers expanding a nearby highway. The area contained "dozens of whale skeletons, along with the remains of other extinct marine mammals and other marine vertebrates." (Via Smithsonian Institution)

It was an exciting find for paleontologists.

"The whale discovery is a discovery of global importance. There has never been a find of this size." (Via BBC)

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The problem: while the Chilean government put the highway project on hold for a while, the work had to continue eventually.

So the researchers quickly began excavating and brought in a Smithsonian 3D imaging team, dubbed the "laser cowboys," to quickly capture the site in digital form. (Via Smithsonian Institution)

"Our job is to preserve as much information as possible, and we had precious little time to document anything scientifically relevant about how those skeletons came to rest." (ViaSmithsonian Institution)

And it seems to have worked. Scientists have been able to catalog the fossils and even believe they know how they wound up there. (Via Proceedings of the Royal Society B)

Red tide, massive algae blooms that can sometimes be toxic, pop up occasionally near coastlines. (ViaWikimedia Commons / Alejandro DiazNOAA)

The Smithsonian's lead researcher says that's the only explanation that fits: the whales ingested toxic algae, died at sea, and drifted onto the desert shore to be covered and preserved by the sand.

He also had some colorful things to say about the rushed excavation job. "I don't wish a whale skeleton on anyone – it's a logistical nightmare. ... It's a big problem just to excavate one, let alone that number." (Via The Washington Post)

The whale graveyard is thought to be the biggest batch of ancient animal fossils since the La Brea Tar Pits, and the researchers think there may be hundreds more fossils buried along the Chilean highway.