Peru geologists strive to preserve whale cemetery

An archaeologist brushes the fossilized jaw of a whale lying on the desert pavement of Ocucaje.

LIMA: In arid southern Peru, geologists are fighting time and the elements to preserve a precious find: a vast whale cemetery dating back millions of years.

The fossilized remains of roughly 15 of the majestic marine mammals alive 3-20 million years ago are currently on view in the Ocucaje desert some 310 kilometers south of the capital Lima.

Once submerged but now situated some 30 kilometers from the shore, the area has been shaken by volcanic eruptions, killing off all life forms, according to experts from the country’s geology and mining institute Ingemmet who have been working for four years at the site, now threatened by erosion.

“The strong winds throughout the year in the area are the worst enemy of the fossils,” Cesar Chacaltana, who heads the team, said during a tour of the site, which spans 45 square kilometers.

Now, plans are under way to create a paleontological park that would include finds from this sandswept stretch, which Chacaltana says could still contain an even larger treasure trove.

“There is probably a greater number of fossils in the sand but it takes high-tech equipment to locate and recover them,” he said. “The bodies were preserved by the low level of oxygen in the substrate, which delayed decay caused by bacteria.”

Excavation work so far has yielded some impressive results.

In February, experts located the remains of a minke whale that is believed to be 3.6 million years old.

Armed with brushes and chisels, and braving intense heat, they unearthed the animal’s head – spanning 1.8 meters – that had fossilized on a rock.

“It is a species known only in Peru,” Chacaltana said, estimating that the whale weighed about 500 kilograms and measured six meters in length.

The specimen, protected so as not to damage it, is due to be transferred to the local municipality of Ocucaje, he added. Work would then continue on the rest of the remains.

Chacaltana recalled how in 2008 researchers found remains of a sperm whale (Livyatan melvillei) that were 12 million years old. The animal is believed to have been between 16 and 20 meters long.

“The sperm whale is a prehistoric animal considered to be one of the largest known marine predators that had about 70 teeth of 36 centimeters each and fed on minke whales coming into the bay to mate,” he said.

The remains of the skull, jaw and teeth of the animal, which together weighed more than a ton, are on display at the natural history museum at the National University of San Marcos in Lima.

A decade ago, Chacaltana came across the jaw and three-meter skull of a giant shark, considered a mega predator, that lived off the Peruvian coast.

While locals are being urged to tread carefully while walking in the excavation area, plans to create a paleontological park are taking shape.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 13, 2012, on page 12.




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