The skeleton shapes are fossils, some of at least 40 dead whales washed ashore en masse between 6 and 9 million years ago on a beach that is now slightly inland from Northern Chille Coastline. The skeleton shapes are fossils, some of at least 40 dead whales washed ashore en masse between 6 and 9 million years ago on a beach that is now slightly inland from Nnorthern Chile's coastline.

No, it's not a sand sculpture competition. The skeleton shapes are fossils, some of at least 40 dead whales washed ashore en masse between 6 and 9 million years ago on a beach that is now slightly inland from northern Chile's coastline. They provide the earliest known example in the fossil record of mass strandings of marine mammals.

The area has the greatest density of extinct marine mammals in the world, says Nicholas Pyenson of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, who led the research. Unfortunately, much of the site now sits under the northbound lane of the Pan-American Highway.

Discovered in 2010 during excavations for the road, which links Alaska and Argentina, the fossil haul includes over 40 large baleen whales, an extinct species of sperm whale and an extinct walrus-like whale. Also found at the Cerro Ballena site – Spanish for "whale hill" – were skeletons of billfishes, seals and aquatic sloths.

Whale graveyard- researchers doing fieldwork. Whale graveyard- researchers doing fieldwork.

Researchers recorded the skeletons in situ using 3D photography (pictured above) before moving them to Chilean museums.

Pyenson and his colleagues think that the whales died at sea after consuming food contaminated with toxins from algal blooms and their bodies floated onto what was then a beach. So-called "red tides", caused by algal blooms, are also to blame for some modern mass whale strandings, says Pyenson.

There were no large land scavengers in South America at the time, so the bodies lay unmolested until sand buried them. The skeletons were found on four separate levels, suggesting this story was repeated at least four times.

Much of the site is now paved over, but the researchers are confident that the area still conceals hundreds more fossils. The University of Chile in Santiago aims to open a research station near the Cerro Ballena site to work with what's left.[youtube]http://youtu.be/qRLZ29mLdSQ[/youtube]

Skeleton of a fossil whale Skeleton of a fossil whale

Repeated mass strandings of Miocene marine mammals from Atacama Region of Chile point to sudden death at sea

Marine mammal mass strandings have occurred for millions of years, but their origins defy singular explanations. Beyond human causes, mass strandings have been attributed to herding behaviour, large-scale oceanographic fronts and harmful algal blooms (HABs). Because algal toxins cause organ failure in marine mammals, HABs are the most common mass stranding agent with broad geographical and widespread taxonomic impact. Toxin-mediated mortalities in marine food webs have the potential to occur over geological timescales, but direct evidence for their antiquity has been lacking. Here, we describe an unusually dense accumulation of fossil marine vertebrates from Cerro Ballena, a Late Miocene locality in Atacama Region of Chile, preserving over 40 skeletons of rorqual whales, sperm whales, seals, aquatic sloths, walrus-whales and predatory bony fish.

Much of the site now sits under the northbound lane of the Pan-American Highway. Much of the site now sits under the northbound lane of the Pan-American Highway.

Marine mammal skeletons are distributed in four discrete horizons at the site, representing a recurring accumulation mechanism. Taphonomic analysis points to strong spatial focusing with a rapid death mechanism at sea, before being buried on a barrier-protected supratidal flat. In modern settings, HABs are the only known natural cause for such repeated, multispecies accumulations. This proposed agent suggests that upwelling zones elsewhere in the world should preserve fossil marine vertebrate accumulations in similar modes and densities.

Published in Marine Wildlife

“We don't know how it was constructed, its exact age is or how it was used, but we do know that it is there and it is huge.”

Dani Nadel, archeologist, University of Haifa

CNN) -- A mysterious, circular structure, with a diameter greater than the length of a Boeing 747 jet, has been discovered submerged about 30 feet (9 meters) underneath the Sea of Galilee in Israel.

sea-of-galilee-stone-structure-

sea-of-galilee-stone-structure-
    The circular stone structure rises to a height of 10meters with a diameter of nearly 70 meters.

Scientists first made the discovery by accident in 2003 using sonar to survey the bottom of the lake but published their findings only recently.

"We just bumped into it," recalls Shmuel Marco, a geophysicist from Tel Aviv University who worked on the project. "Usually the bottom of the lake is quite smooth. We were surprised to find a large mound. Initially we didn't realize the importance of this but we consulted with a couple of archaeologists, and they said it looked like an unusually large Bronze Age statue."

The structure is comprised of basalt rocks, arranged in the shape of a cone. It measures 230 feet (70 meters) at the base of the structure, is 32 feet (10 meters) tall, and weighs an estimated 60,000 tons. It is twice the size of the ancient stone circle at Stonehenge in England.

“We just bumped into it. Usually the bottom of the lake is quite smooth, so we were surprised to find a large mound.”

Shmuel Marco, geophysicist, Tel Aviv University

Its size and location, say Marco, who also took video of the structure during a scuba dive to examine it, indicated it could have been constructed underwater as a type of fish nursery. However archeologists think it more likely it was built on dry land and later submerged by the lake.

"From a geophysical perspective, it is also important to the history of the lake, because it means the water level was lower than it was today," says Marco.

According to Yitzhak Paz, the archeologist who led the study, the fact that the structure is underwater has made it a particularly difficult study.

"If the site was inland, it would be much easier to investigate. By now we would have excavated, but because it's submerged we haven't yet been able to. It is a much harder process, both physically and financially. It is very expensive to raise support for such an enterprise."

cross section of structure

cross section of structure
    Cross -section of the structure

The exact age of the structure has been difficult to pinpoint, but calculations based on the six to ten feet (two to three meters) of sand that have accumulated over the bottom of the base -- sand accumulates an average of one to four millimeters per year -- as well as comparisons to other structures in the region, put the estimate anywhere between 2,000 and 12,000 years old.

 STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Ancient structure twice the size of Stonehenge found submerged
  • Thought to be between 2,000 and 12,000 years old
  • Archeologists believe it was built on land then later submerged
  • Guesses as to site's purpose; could be ceremonial structure or huge ramp

The possible purpose of the structure is even more enigmatic.

Dani Nadel, an archeologist from the University of Haifa, who partnered on the site, and who has led several prehistoric excavations in the region, notes it shares similarities with communal burial sites, though he's quick to discourage anyone from drawing a definitive conclusion.

"This is such a huge structure that it truly is something unusual. It could have been a big ceremonial structure, or a ramp. There could have once been statues on top of people in certain rituals. I mean, I'm really going wild here. The truth is we don't know how it was constructed, what its exact age is, how it was used, or how long ago it was used. We have several speculations, but we don't know much except that it's there and it's huge."

Despite the limitations of examining underwater ruins, Nadel says that once they do raise the funds to excavate, there is a good likelihood that their findings will be more complete than would be possible with a land-based structure.

"Above land, many organic remains are decomposed by worms, and other creatures needing oxygen. Underwater, you don't have oxygen, so the process of decomposition is on a much smaller scale," he says.

Nadel points to Ohalo II, a site he excavated near the Sea of Galilee that had been submerged for 23,000 years before a drop in water level made it easy to excavate. Ohalo II is significant because it was one of the best preserved prehistoric sites in the world.

"In most sites, you're lucky to find five or ten seeds. At Ohalo, we found 150,000. We learned a lot about the diet (of the inhabitants), what fish they were eating, what animals they were hunting. When a site is underwater it gives us the opportunity to see history in much more detail."

What archeologists are certain of is that the monument was likely of great importance to the people who built it. Marco notes that the nearest basalt outcrop was a few hundred meters from the site, and that the stones, which were three to six feet (one to two meters) in width, would have weighed over 200 pounds (90 kilograms) at times.

"We see a society that was capable of organizing the construction of such a large structure. It's unique to transport these stones and unique to arrange them. You need to plan and to mobilize people, because they're too heavy to be carried by a single person."

Nadel points out that given the harsh environment such a structure was a particularly impressive accomplishment.

"You have to imagine," says Nadel, "these people were building something that was more durable than their brush huts."

Published in Marine Wildlife

 

 

 

 

 

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