Paleobiology Blog

Fossil Whale Digsite at Cerro Ballena, Chile

The Whale Graveyard Whodunit

Chilean and Smithsonian paleontologists study several fossil whale skeletons at Cerro Ballena, next to the Pan-American Highway in Atacama Region, Chile, in 2011. Credit: Adam Metallo / Smithsonian Institution One of the ocean's tiniest organisms often does the most harm. Microscopic algae can grow rapidly to form harmful algal blooms (sometimes called "red tides"), which create unhealthy water conditions that can kill animals large and small. In 2013, hundreds of Florida manatees died from eating toxic red algae, which also killed off their usual seagrass food. That same year, more than 200...Read more

Whale fossils on the mainland, and into a CT scanner

Gabor Szathmary secures one of the plaster jackets containing a fossil "toothed" mysticete that was excavated on Vancouver Island. After a few long days of hard work on the island, we were finally able to excavate and remove , not just one, but two skeletons of an early "toothed" baleen whale from the rocks near the Carmanah Lighthouse. All told, it took our team 3 days, along with assistance from Parks Canada, a chartered boat, a chartered helicopter, car ferries, and one really nice diamond-bladed rock saw. In one day we made the whole trip back from the island to our staging area in...Read more
A researcher holds an arm bone from a "toothed" mysticete whale from Vancouver Island.

Dispatches from the Field: Treacherous stream crossings and a new fossil find

Nick Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, holds an arm bone from a "toothed" mysticete from Vancouver Island. Credit: J. A. Goldbogen Editor's note: Read Nick's first blog post about "toothed" baleen whales to see what their team is excavating on Vancouver Island. We departed from Port Renfrew on Tuesday morning on the Michelle Diana, a boat chartered specifically for our expedition. An hour later we approached Carmanah Point, a tall cliff upon which the Carmanah lighthouse sits (built in 1891). We made the treacherous boat-shore...Read more
Nick Pyenson points to a skull and skeleton of a fossil whale.

Excavating a "toothed" baleen whale from Vancouver Island

Nick Pyenson, the Smithsonian's curator of fossil marine mammals, points to the skull and skeleton of a 23-25 million year old fossil "toothed" mysticete whale. Credit: NDP and J. A. Goldbogen/SI The whales that we see in today's world can broadly be split into two groups: those with teeth (odontocetes), and those that have baleen (mysticetes) instead of teeth. These two groups share a common ancestor in the Eocene, which had teeth (They looked a lot like the ancient whale skeletons in the Sant Ocean Hall). This insight leads to a question: When, in their evolutionary history , did mysticetes...Read more
An illustration of a recently discovered species of Monodontid, Bohaskaia monodontoides, and its beluga and narwhale relatives

Smithsonian Scientists Describe a 'New' Fossil Whale

A reconstruction of a new fossil beluga relative, Bohaskaia monodontoides , described by Smithsonian scientists, is pictured in the foreground. Its living relatives, the beluga and narwhal, are illustrated left to right in the background. Coloration of the extinct whale is speculative. Credit: Carl Buell Monodontids, the group of whales that includes the belugas and narwhals swimming our ocean today, are emblematic symbols of the Arctic. However, their fossil record, although scarce, suggests that these animals' ranges could have been much broader. Fossil monodontids have been previously...Read more
An illustration of multispecies communities of dugongs from India, Mexico and Florida

The Discovery of Multispecies Communities of Seacows

This reconstruction illustrates multispecies communities of seacows from three different time periods and ocean basins. Each seacow represents a different extinct species of dugong. Credit: Carl Buell/ Sirenians , or seacows, are a group of marine mammals that include manatees and dugongs. In the modern ocean, only one species of seacow is found in each world region, however, the fossil record tells a different story. According to the fossil record of these marine mammals, which dates back 50 million years ago, it was more common to find three, maybe more, different...Read more
Offshore Peru, during the Eocene (~56-34 million years ago), showing two archaeocetes (ancient whales): Ocucajea picklingi and Supayacetus muizon.

New Archaeocetes from Peru Are the Oldest Fossil Whales from South America

Offshore Peru, during the Eocene (~56-34 million years ago), showing two archaeocetes (ancient whales): Ocucajea picklingi (above) and Supayacetus muizoni (below). Credit: Carl Buell, The evolution of whales represents one of the great stories in macroevolution. It's a narrative that has mostly benefitted from an extraordinary series of fossils recovered from rocks around the world, including challenging field areas in Egypt, Pakistan, and India. Over the past 30 years, the diligent work of many paleontologists has revealed a sequence of evolutionary transformations,...Read more
Smithsonian scientists race the tide the excavate an ancient whale fossil entombed in rock

Fossil Whale Found, Excavated, Jacketed, and Returned to STRI!

A time-lapse video of the excavation of an extinct toothed whale on a Panamanian beach. Jorge and I packed up the night we arrived in Panama with Aaron O'Dea and his team from STRI . The road we took in two field vehicles mostly followed the Panama Canal heading northwards; we had to stop at a tanker ship crossing, where the locks separated the roadway. Quite an engineering marvel. We spent the night in Achiote, fell asleep listening to howler monkeys, and awoke to the sights of hummingbirds and more toucans. Before heading out to the fossil locality on the Caribbean coast, we had a wonderful...Read more
Smithsonian researchers eat a meal in preparation for a fossil excavation

At STRI, No Whales Yet, But There Are Fossil Sea Cows...

Before heading out to the fossil locality in Piña, Panama on the Caribbean coast, the team of researchers have a full breakfast at a cantina by the side of the road: roasted chicken, plantains, and some coffee. Credit: Jorge Velez-Juarbe Jorge and I arrived in Panama City around 3 pm this afternoon, and took a taxi to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI)'s headquarters in the Gorgas neighborhood of downtown Panama City. The temperature's about like it would be in D.C. on a hot day, but, much to our amazement, there are giant, beautiful avocados and mangos hanging from the trees...Read more
Smithsonian Scientists Dig a Trench Around a squalodontid Skull

Expedition to Excavate a Fossil Whale

The first thing the researchers did when they arrived on site was outline the general excavation area and take careful measurements of exposed fossils. Next, they applied acrylic glue to any exposed bone to help stabilize it. Then a small surface-layer cap of plaster bandages is applied to the skull to protect it from any errant whacks while digging. Finally, the digging begins, and scientists work to make a deep trench around the skull (shown here). The trench allows the researchers to apply a plaster bandage cap around the block of rock containing the fossils in order to extract the skull...Read more