Whales Saved From Highway Project

A team of paleontologists is racing to recover dozens of fossilized whale skeletons from the site of a road building excavation in northern Chile.

Nov 21, 2011
Bob Grant

Fossil of Ambulocetus, an extinct whaleWIKIMEDIA COMMONS, GHEDOGHEDO

Late last year, construction workers cutting a road through the Atacama Desert region of northern Chile stumbled upon a major paleontological find when they unearthed several complete whale skeletons that had been buried beneath layers of rock. Now, researchers from the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, are scrambling to preserve and catalog dozens of fossil finds before construction of the roadway begins sometime next month.

Since October, paleobiologist Nick Pyenson of the Smithsonian has been leading a team that's trying to learn as much as possible about the fossils and the site in the limited window of time. In two trips to the site, Pyenson and his colleagues have found more than 20 complete whale skeletons mingled with other types of marine mammal fossils and are racing to document or remove the material. "We're pushing the limits for what we can do with [whole] fossils," Pyenson told ScienceInsider. "It's really logistically challenging."

Pyenson and his team are employing the Smithsonian's 3D Digitization program to create an accurate picture of the site and the finds it harbors before removing the bones. "What they're doing is using sophisticated long-range and high-resolution laser scanners," Pyenson noted. "My vision is that, with all this data, people could virtually go back to this site that no longer exists."