More from The Strange… it seems algal blooms may have been responsible for bringing down the mass grave of whales discovered by a construction crew in Chile in 2010.
Tiny Algae Responsible for Mysterious Fossil Whale Graveyard? (National Geographic):
This week, a team of them proposed an answer: The huge baleen whales were felled by microscopic algae.
Toxins produced by prehistoric algal blooms could have been potent enough to kill off massive numbers of marine animals, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The open access paper by Pyensen, et al., published February 26, 2014, describes the results of a taphonomic analysis of a dense accumulation of whale skeletons in Cerro Ballena, Chile. According to the research group, the analysis infers a “rapid death mechanism at sea,” and comparing this with modern-known mechanisms to suggest harmful algal blooms (HABs) as a plausible cause for the rapid accumulation in the Chilean whale graveyard.
Pyensen’s group noted that “HABs are the most common mass stranding agen with broad geographical and widespread taxonomic impact,” because “algal toxins cause organ failure in marine mammals.”
After ongoing construction threatened to disrupt scientific studies at the site, Smithsonian paleontologists along with its 3D Digitization Program Office used 3D scanners to take a virtual “snapshot” of the site.
That snapshot — which is also being 3D-printed — is allowing researchers to continue their investigation of the site long after the fossils were moved to a local museum.
The site remains a rich resource for research, as it contains a sampling of a variety of ancient marine life, some extinct, including Odobenocetops (the “whale walrus”) and Thalassocnus (the “aquatic sloth”), which appear to have succumbed to these algal blooms (Hat tip to Doubtful News commenter eddi).
“We found extinct creatures such as walrus whales – dolphins that evolved a walrus-like face. And then there were these bizarre aquatic sloths,” recalls Nicholas Pyenson, a palaeontologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
“To me, it’s amazing that in 240m of road-cut, we managed to sample all the superstars of the fossil marine-mammal world in South America in the Late Miocene. Just an incredibly dense accumulation of species,” he told BBC News.