Whales in the Desert

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is the driest place on earth.  In fact, there are many parts of it that have never received any rainfall in human memory.  It is so dry that it has been used to simulate the surface of Mars for the Mars Rover.

It lies in the Chilean highlands (altiplano) between the Andes mountain range and the Pacific Ocean; the Andes average about 13,000 ft. in height, and the cold Humboldt Current is right off the coast (it’s right off the coast of Northern California, too; that’s why the ocean water in Santa Cruz is so cold).

The country looks like  a long skinny finger on the west side of South America; Atacama is the third section (orange one, from the top of the finger).

We tend to think of deserts as hot and sandy, but in fact the Atacama is cold – temperatures average between 32 degrees (that’s freezing!) and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. And the air is so clear -no dust and no light pollution- that 10 universities and other agencies have formed a consortium to build the Giant Magellan Telescope there.

There is now very little in the way of life in the Atacama Desert.  But  late last year news came out about 75  ancient whale skeletons, 20 of them in perfect condition, that showed up in the Atacama Desert, half a mile from the ocean.  The whales all apparently died at the same time – about 2 million years ago.

Whales?  In the driest desert on earth?

It’s not often that whole fossilized animals are discovered.  More often it’s pieces – a few vertebrae, a humerus (arm bone), a claw.  But these fossils of ancient marine mammals are complete and recognizable, as you can see from the picture below.  The skeleton that you see here is a prehistoric dolphin; whales, dolphins and porpoises are closely related to one another.

There are other skeletons, very close to each other.  Some are relatively small, like the dolphin, but some are enormous, like the one below.

It’s not clear what happened in the Atacama, but we DO know that land can be raised abruptly out of the sea.  Charles Darwin was in Chile in 1835, when a huge earthquake devastated the coast from Valdivia to Concepción.

Darwin saw beds of mussels lifted several feet above the sea where they had been previously.  If one earthquake could produce such effects, what would happen over time, with hundreds of earthquakes (when Darwin traveled in the Andes later, he found mussel beds hundreds of feet above sea level)?

Is that happened here?  Was there an enormous earthquake that produced a tsunami, and the tsunami carried dozens of whales and dolphins into the desert, where they died together?  Paleontologists studying them say there may be hundreds more waiting to be discovered.  Did these marine animals die off simultaneously?

Or was the Atacama Desert the bottom of the sea millions of years ago?

So many questions!  We can examine them at our leisure – unlike the paleontologists, who are being told to hurry it up so the widening of the Pan-American Highway can continue.

Here are some children’s books about Chile, a marvelous country:

Chile. Enchantment of the World

Chile in Pictures

And if you want to visit, the best guide book is the Rough Guide to Chile.

The geology of Chile and how dangerous it can be:

Trapped.  How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert

Here are some books about Charles Darwin, who was fascinated by South America before he headed out to the Galápagos Islands:

What Mr. Darwin Saw

Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure

And of course the ever-intriguing fossils:

100 Things You Should Know About Fossils

Fossils: A True Book

Fossils of the World

Be sure to ask your librarian if you want more information about these wonderful topics.

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The Children’s and Teen Services blog entries are written by the seven Children's and Teen librarians. We are your go-to people for help with book selections for toddlers through teens, storytimes, parenting, and family fun.

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