Ask a paleontologist about the mystery behind this whale graveyard!

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Over 5 million years ago, a mass stranding of whales created what is now a whale graveyard in modern day Chile. Just why those whales died was a mystery — until now. Nick Pyenson, the paleontologist who led the team that cracked the case, is here to answer your questions!


He will be joining us here from 11:30 - 12:30 (Pacific time), so start asking him questions now.

Top image: The Smithsonian's digitization team scans a whale fossil / Smithsonian Institution; Bottom image: A 3-D interactive graphic of a whale fossil that they brought back with them / Smithsonian Institution

The culprit in the case turned out to be a toxic algae that killed off the whales in four separate events over the span of 10,000 to 16,000 years, leaving more than 40 fossilized whales at the site known as Cerro Ballena in Chile's Atacama Desert.

But, the graveyard at Cerro Ballena was actually exposed because of road construction in the area, which was destroying the fossil site. So, researchers tried an experiment: Using the Smithsonian's new 3-d modeling tools, they digitized the entire site rapidly in under a week, and took it back with them as files to analyze.

Here's one of the interactive graphics of the fossilized whales that they were able to bring back.


You can also read the whole paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences, here.


Pyenson is also the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where he oversees the world's largest collection of fossil marine mammals. His research focuses on answering the question of how and why whales and other aquatic life made the transition from land-to-sea.

Pyenson will be joining us here from 11:30 - 12:30 (Pacific time). Start asking him questions now about just how one does a postmortem on a 5 million year-old whale, the tech he used to do it, the evolution of whales, and anything else you want!



Annalee Newitz

Were these toxic algae blooms also associated with ocean acidification in that region at the time? Or perhaps other climate changes?