The Whales of Three Deserts

How did 75 whales end up in the desert? Rows of prehistoric bones unearthed in one of the most significant discoveries of its kind

Some believe they became disoriented and beached themselves, while others claim they were moved by a landslide and became trapped in a lagoon.

But scientists remain baffled as to how exactly scores of whales ended up in a desert more than half a mile from the sea.

The skeletons of 75 whales, believed to be more than two millions years old, were unearthed next to one another, just yards apart, in one of the world’s best-preserved graveyards of prehistoric whales.


Chilean scientists and researchers from the Smithsonian Institution are studying how the whales, many of them the size of buses, were found in exactly the same corner of the Atacama Desert in Chile.


This story reminded me of another large find of whale fossils in the desert in Egypt. Valley of the Whales. An Egyptian desert, once an ocean, holds the secret to one of evolution’s most remarkable transformations.

Thirty-seven million years ago, in the waters of the prehistoric Tethys Ocean, a sinuous, 50-foot-long beast with gaping jaws and jagged teeth died and sank to the seafloor.

Over thousands of millennia a mantle of sediment built up over its bones. The sea receded, and as the former seabed became a desert, the wind began to plane away the sandstone and shale above the bones. Slowly the world changed. Shifts in the Earth’s crust pushed India into Asia, heaving up the Himalaya. In Africa, the first human ancestors stood up on their hind legs to walk. The pharaohs built their pyramids. Rome rose, Rome fell. And all the while the wind continued its patient excavation. Then one day Philip Gingerich showed up to finish the job.


Two mysterious mass graves of ancient whales is intriguing enough, but three is even better. In the summer of 2010 the L.A. Times reported on a find of one whale fossil in the Peruvian desert, Giant whale fossil found in desert in Peru

Paleontologists have discovered remnants of the fossilized skull of an ancient whale in a Peruvian desert — and named it after Herman Melville, the author of “Moby Dick.”

The newly discovered species, Leviathan melvillei, lived about 12 million years ago. Scientists believe it feasted on smaller whales that shared what were oceans at the time, as seen in the artist’s rendering at left.

The international team that discovered the fossil announced its findings last week in the journal Nature. The whale skull was found in late 2008 in the Pisco-Ica desert in southern Peru, known as a veritable “Jurassic park” for paleontologists.

Upon catching glimpse of the whale skull’s giant teeth, the researchers at first thought they had come across elephant tusks.

“This part of the Peruvian coast, about 500 kilometers south of Lima, is probably the richest place in the world for fossil marine mammals,” says one of the scientists involved in the study, in this video at Nature.


This video is of the fossil find in Egypt, Whales of the Desert