Site is branded most diverse on planet for marine mammals after Pan-American Highway roadworks unearth baleen whales

The baleen whale fossil graveyard in Chile known as Cerro Ballena, ‘whale hill’. Photograph: Adam Metallo, Smithsonian Institution

A mass graveyard of whales has been unearthed beside the Pan-American Highway in Chile, in what scientists believe is one of most extraordinary marine mammal fossil sites on the planet.

The skeletons of dozens of baleen whales were found in ancient sandstones in the Atacama region of northern Chile, where they are thought to have lain undetected for between 6m and 9m years.

Whale fossil graveyard in Chile. Photograph: Adam Metallo/Smithsonian Institution

In an article published in the Royal Society journal, scientists explain that the whales ended up in the same small area as the result of four separate mass strandings over a period of more than 10,000 years.

Researchers believe the animals ingested toxic algae before being washed into an estuary and, eventually, on to flat sands at the site dubbed Cerro Ballena (“whale hill”).

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