Researchers Rush to Recover Whale Fossils From Highway Project

Courtesy of Nick Pyenson

In Chile's dry, hot, desert-like Atacama Region, a group of Smithsonian researchers are digging up whales.

The fossil site, near the port city of Caldera in northern Chile, was discovered in late 2010 by a construction company expanding the Pan-American Highway. In a road cut, the workers discovered complete skeletons of baleen whales, says paleobiologist Nick Pyenson, the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The company agreed to grant the site a brief reprieve, allowing Pyenson to coordinate a short-term excavation of the fossils.

Since October, Pyenson and a team of researchers have made two trips to the site's late Miocene marine rocks, which contain a rich diversity of marine vertebrates. They are striving to learn how the site was formed and how the marine mammals died—a field known as taphonomy.

Credit: Nick Pyenson

The team has found more than 20 complete whale skeletons, and about 80 individual specimens, as well as other types of marine mammals. Facing a deadline sometime next month, the team has been working as quickly as possible to remove the fossils. "We're pushing the limits for what we can do with [whole] fossils," he adds. "It's really logistically challenging."

Since the site itself may soon be destroyed, the researchers are also hoping to create a record of it, so that scientists can continue to learn from it. Toward that goal, they have brought in experts from the Smithsonian's 3D Digitization program to image entire skeletons of fossil whales in situ before removing the fossils. "What they're doing is using sophisticated long-range and high-resolution laser scanners," Pyenson says. The laser imaging ratio is 1:1, he adds, so that the "literally terabytes" of data they've recorded can eventually be used to virtually reproduce the fossils for museums and future study by paleontologists. "My vision is that, with all this data, people could virtually go back to this site that no longer exists."