The pod of 80 ancient baleen whales in the Atacama Desert has excited paleontologists everywhere — and caused much controversy here. Herewith a clarification of the desert whales story.
Details of the desert whales
The reports of the desert whales came from the Associated Press, Nature.com, and two other sources. They all agree on these point:
- About eighty ancient whale skeletons are present at the site. They are all baleen whales (suborder Mysticeti). The skeletons are some of the best-preserved specimens that anyone has ever found. More than a quarter of them are intact.
- The site itself is about half a mile inland, in the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world.
- The site holds skeletons of sharks, a now-extinct porpoise (“dolphin”), and seals, in addition to the whales. (The dolphin is especially remarkable for its two walrus-like tusks.) Other scientists have earlier found birds elsewhere in the Atacama Desert.
But the four articles do not seem to agree on the location. Three names of towns and villages appear: Caldera, Copiapó, and Bahia Inglesa. Of these, Copiapó is actually forty miles further inland than the other two, and at the highest elevation of the three.
Another reader, whom your editor knows personally and who has earned my respect, identified the likely scene by examining the published AP photographs. Those that do not simply look straight down on the desert whales, look toward the nearby Highway 5 or toward an obvious body of water. That, plus the AP statement that the desert whales are about a kilometer inland, means that the desert whales are not near Copiapó. Why AP captioned some of their photographs and used as a reference a town forty miles distant from the find, when two other towns were much closer, your editor will not speculate.
Caldera and Bahia Inglesa are both on the beach. But the site is not on the beach, but is a kilometer away from it. Other readers have suggested that the desert whales are at an elevation of 150 feet above sea (and beach) level.
Riddles about the desert whales
A humpback whale shows its tail off the California coast. Humpbacks are one of the best-known members of the baleen order, the same as the desert whales of the Atacama Desert. Photo: Mike Baird, CC BY 2.0 Generic License.
So the elevation itself would not preclude a mass stranding from the ocean. But at least two other facts about the desert whales, and other animals found near them and elsewhere in the Atacama Desert, are hard to explain by ordinary mass stranding. And this does look like a mass stranding. How eighty whales could strand themselves all in one spot over thousands of years or more is almost inexplicable.
- The desert whales are baleen whales, not the toothed whales (Odontoceti) that one sees in beaching or mass stranding incidents. So these whales did not beach themselves, as the AP article suggested.
- The other fossils in the Atacama Desert present a worse problem. Why would birds (one of which had the wingspan of a large condor, by one account) die suddenly in an earthquake or a tsunami? An earthquake disturbs the local electric field; a bird would sense this at once and fly away. Animals are equally sensitive to an approaching tsunami. And a condor-like bird should certainly have been able to fly away from that.
Thus several facts make the desert whales easier to explain by a generalized catastrophe, or cataclysm, than by multiple events over thousands of years, or millions. The elevation of the site is not one of them.
Your editor apologizes for misreading the initial clues, and thanks those readers who took time to furnish those clues, analyze them, and point them out.