PHOTOS: Construction crew discovers ancient graveyard of whales, sloths and fish killed by algae

Updated Mar 19, 2014

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Scientists have solved the mystery surrounding a mass graveyard of ancient sea life discovered by a Chilean highway construction crew more than three years ago.

During the widening of the Pan-American Highway in northern Chile, road workers uncovered more than 40 fossilized skeletons preserved in sandstone. Most of the skeletons were that of baleen whales but, according to the Washington Post, the site also included the remains of a now-extinct species sperm whale, a whale with walrus-like teeth and an aquatic sloth. The site, known as “Whale Hill,” also included marlin and swordfish.

The fossils are estimated to be between 6 million and 9 million years old and were buried more than 130 feet above sea level. The graveyard even includes a whole family of whales, two adults and a calf, and most of the animals are belly-up. The formation was a mystery to researchers with the Smithsonian Institute until now.

According to a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the graveyard is thought to have been formed when the animals were killed by toxic blooms of algae, also known as “red tide.” The scientists believe the animals likely ate the algae. The graveyard likely accumulated after the animals were killed and washed ashore by four blooms of the harmful algae over a course of 10,000 years.

Researchers made 3D scans of the fossils before excavating them and moving them to museums. Those scans will let scientists make 3D prints of the bones. You can watch a time lapse video of the 3D scanning below. And don’t miss photos of the graveyard in the gallery above.

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