Mystery of whale bones found in Chilean desert

It sounds like the start of a joke, but how did 75 whales end up in the desert?

That’s the question being asked by palaeontologists as prehistoric whale skeletons have been discovered in a Chilean desert.

The skeletons were found just metres apart from each other, side-by-side, in one of the world’s best preserved graveyards for prehistoric whales, but scientists are still debating exactly how the whales ended up more than 800 metres inland.

Opinions are divided on how they got there. Many believe that the whales became disoriented and beached themselves, while others believe that they were trapped in a lagoon after being moved inland by a landslide.

The skeletons were found in Caldera in the Atacama Desert in Chile and they have been taken to the Smithsonian Institution for study. It is thought that the whales died between two million and seven million years ago.

Nicholas Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, according to the Daily Mail, said: “I think they died more or less at the same time. There are many ways that whales could die, and we're still testing all those different hypotheses.”

The majority of the remains were those of baleen whales, but scientists also found a sperm whale skeleton and a now-extinct dolphin which had two walrus-like tusks.

"We're very excited about that," Pyenson said. "It is a very bizarre animal."

Vertebrae palaeontologist Eric Fitzgerald hailed the find as significant. He said: “The fossils are exceptionally well preserved and quite complete - a rare combination in palaeontology and one that will likely shed light on many facets of the ecology and evolution of these extinct species."

This is not the first time that a graveyard of whales has been discovered. Whale skeletons have been found in Egypt and Peru but the Chilean fossils stand out for their sheer number and perfectly preserved bones.

How do you think these whales died? Have you ever discovered anything cool on your gap year?

For those of you thinking of travelling to Chile on a gap year, then read our Chile country section.