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Smithsonian Scientists Solve “Sudden Death at Sea” Mystery

February 25, 2014

Mass strandings of whales have puzzled people since Aristotle. 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.

Fossil whales
Related photos: 

Cerro Ballena 3D Scanning (night)

Fossil whales

Photo by Vince Rossi / Smithsonian Institution

Medium-range 3-D surface scanning of fossil whale skeletons next to the Pan-American Highway in the Atacama Region of Chile, 2011. Photo credit: Vince Rossi, Smithsonian Institution

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Cerro Ballena 3D Scanning (tent)

3D Scanning

Smithsonian Institution

From left, Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi from the Smithsonian's Digitization Program Office 3-D Lab a use high-resolution laser arm and medium-range laser scanners to document one of the most complete fossil whales from the Cerro Ballena site.

Cerro Ballena Fossil Whales

Fossil whales

Photo by James F. Parham / California State University, Fullerton

Chilean and Smithsonian paleontologists study several fossil whale skeletons at Cerro Ballena, next to the Pan-American Highway in the Atacama Region of Chile, 2011. Photo credit: James F. Parham, California State University, Fullerton

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Cerro Ballena La Familia (ground)

Fossil whales at Cerro Ballena

Photo by Adam Metallo / Smithsonian Institution

Chilean and Smithsonian paleontologists study several fossil whale skeletons at Cerro Ballena, next to the Pan-American Highway in the Atacama Region of Chile, 2011. Photo credit: Adam Metallo, Smithsonian Institution

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Cerro Ballena La Familia (south)

La Familia South

Photo by Adam Metallo / Smithsonian Institution

Chilean and Smithsonian paleontologists study several fossil whale skeletons at Cerro Ballena, next to the Pan-American Highway in the Atacama Region of Chile, 2011. Photo credit: Adam Metallo, Smithsonian Institution

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Cerro Ballena La Familia (west)

fossil whales

Photo by Adam Metallo / Smithsonian Institution

Chilean and Smithsonian paleontologists study several fossil whale skeletons at Cerro Ballena, next to the Pan-American Highway in the Atacama Region of Chile, 2011. Photo credit: Adam Metallo, Smithsonian Institution

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