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Desert whales clarified

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Vegetation Zones in and near the Atacama Plateau. The desert whales were found in the "absolute desert" region.

The pod of 80 ancient baleen whales in the Atacama Desert has excited paleontologists everywhere — and caused much controversy here. Herewith a clarification of the desert whales story.

Details of the desert whales

The reports of the desert whales came from the Associated Press, Nature.com, and two other sources. They all agree on these point:

  1. About eighty ancient whale skeletons are present at the site. They are all baleen whales (suborder Mysticeti). The skeletons are some of the best-preserved specimens that anyone has ever found. More than a quarter of them are intact.
  2. The site itself is about half a mile inland, in the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world.
  3. The site holds skeletons of sharks, a now-extinct porpoise (“dolphin”), and seals, in addition to the whales. (The dolphin is especially remarkable for its two walrus-like tusks.) Other scientists have earlier found birds elsewhere in the Atacama Desert.

But the four articles do not seem to agree on the location. Three names of towns and villages appear: Caldera, Copiapó, and Bahia Inglesa. Of these, Copiapó is actually forty miles further inland than the other two, and at the highest elevation of the three.

Another reader, whom your editor knows personally and who has earned my respect, identified the likely scene by examining the published AP photographs. Those that do not simply look straight down on the desert whales, look toward the nearby Highway 5 or toward an obvious body of water. That, plus the AP statement that the desert whales are about a kilometer inland, means that the desert whales are not near Copiapó. Why AP captioned some of their photographs and used as a reference a town forty miles distant from the find, when two other towns were much closer, your editor will not speculate.

Caldera and Bahia Inglesa are both on the beach. But the site is not on the beach, but is a kilometer away from it. Other readers have suggested that the desert whales are at an elevation of 150 feet above sea (and beach) level.

Riddles about the desert whales

A humpback whale: a close relative of the desert whales of the Atacama Desert

A humpback whale shows its tail off the California coast. Humpbacks are one of the best-known members of the baleen order, the same as the desert whales of the Atacama Desert. Photo: Mike Baird, CC BY 2.0 Generic License.

So the elevation itself would not preclude a mass stranding from the ocean. But at least two other facts about the desert whales, and other animals found near them and elsewhere in the Atacama Desert, are hard to explain by ordinary mass stranding. And this does look like a mass stranding. How eighty whales could strand themselves all in one spot over thousands of years or more is almost inexplicable.

  1. The desert whales are baleen whales, not the toothed whales (Odontoceti) that one sees in beaching or mass stranding incidents. So these whales did not beach themselves, as the AP article suggested.
  2. The other fossils in the Atacama Desert present a worse problem. Why would birds (one of which had the wingspan of a large condor, by one account) die suddenly in an earthquake or a tsunami? An earthquake disturbs the local electric field; a bird would sense this at once and fly away. Animals are equally sensitive to an approaching tsunami. And a condor-like bird should certainly have been able to fly away from that.

Conclusion

Thus several facts make the desert whales easier to explain by a generalized catastrophe, or cataclysm, than by multiple events over thousands of years, or millions. The elevation of the site is not one of them.

Your editor apologizes for misreading the initial clues, and thanks those readers who took time to furnish those clues, analyze them, and point them out.

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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

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Fergus Mason

Nope, baleen whales do get stranded as well, just less frequently. For example: http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories/s2094.htm

Birds? No problem. Many birds eat carrion. 80 dead whales, I would suggest, makes rather a lot of carrion. Scavengers and small predators are often found fossilised near dead prey species.

Fergus Mason

Duh? Just because something happens rarely doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

How do I explain fossilisation of birds? The same way as I explain fossilisation of anything else with a skeleton. There are plenty of bird fossils. Who says they were caught by surprise? Given the amount of carrion represented by 80 dead whales (and feeding by condor-sized birds wouldn’t noticeably damage a baleen whale skeleton, BTW) they could practically have died of old age. That’s not even allowing for fights among scavengers, poisoning from decaying meat or any of the other things that kill birds in huge numbers.

Fergus Mason

Utter nonsense. Fossilisation does not require rapid burial and it CERTAINLY doesn’t require the victim to be buried alive. What possible difference could it make whether it was alive or dead?

Fergus Mason

It doesn’t matter if soft tissue gets eaten; bones will still fossilise. Look at a scavenged carcass sometime; unless hyenas have been at it you still have a largely intact skeleton complete with most of the skin and hair/feathers. That’s EASILY enough to leave a good fossil and it can lie there for years before being buried. The time required for fossilisation varies enormously depending on many factors, including the size of the bones and the surrounding minerals. It can be anywhere between weeks and centuries.

Natural Historian

Ok, that is a pretty good way to get fossilized but many organisms can certainly fossilize in many other ways. Also, you are assuming that the conditions on earth are the same everywhere and that they were the same in the past as in the present. Go to northern Canada and look at trees that died 100 years ago that have yet to decay and some that have been buried during this time. Look at all the bones of whales on the Northern Slope of Alaska that are hundreds of years old and have been moved by people and water to new burial spots. Look at tree stumps that are revealed by melting glaciers. The latter have been around for thousands of years and the trees have yet to decay. Some are exposed but how many thousands of trees are buried under glaciers deposits and preserved. So many different ways to preserve specimens. Sure, at the equator there are not so many but the conditions for rapid decay are not present everywhere. Whale bones from young whale are especially easy to fossilize because they are especially dense (not so older whales) and they can lie at the bottom of a shallow continental shelf for 10 years before being completely decayed. If burried during that time even if they eventually decay they will result in trace cavities of whale bones.

Fergus Mason

“Would it surprise you to learn that someone recently discovered a fossilized T. rex leg with its soft tissue still intact? And fresh? And still bleeding?”

It would, if it had ever happened – which it hasn’t. And before you tell me about Mary Schweitzer’s discovery that’s old news, no soft tissue was intact, it wasn’t bleeding and the biological material that was extracted seems to be microbial contamination.

Fergus Mason

“What carried eighty whales a full klick inland?”

Nothing, I imagine. Most likely they died on the beach and over time the sea level has fallen. That happens. We’re currently in an ice age and that sucks a lot of water out of the oceans. Sea levels aren’t constant; that’s schoolboy stuff.

Fergus Mason

“We are currently in an ice age? Funny. I thought we were in an age of anthropogenic global warming”

We’re probably in both. Those ice caps that are melting? The fact they exist at all means we’re in an ice age. Global warming is real; I remain open-minded as to whether it’s anthropogenic or not, but continuing to unnecessarily pump out greenhouse gases is stupid in any case.

Fergus Mason

I don’t really care what “ice age” means to you. What it ACTUALLY means is that at least one polar ice cap is present. We are currently in an interglacial period of an ice age.

Fergus Mason

Why are you bringing up global warming? It’s irrelevant. The fact is that we’re currently in an ice age, which has lasted nearly 3 million years. When those whales died 7 million years ago we WEREN’T in an ice age, so sea levels would have been higher. This AGW stuff, like Schweitzer and Asara’s ostrich-flavoured T-Rex, is just a smokescreen.

Fergus Mason

“if sea levels were that high, and stayed that high, long enough for eighty whales to get trapped, then they should have swum back out the way they came.”

By that logic whales would NEVER get trapped on beaches. They do. Therefore I reject this argument.

I make up my own mind on each issue according to the evidence; I don’t accept “package deals.” Does CO2 trap solar heat in the atmosphere? Yes. Do we release CO2? Yes. Do we release ENOUGH CO2 to overcome natural cycles? I have no idea and I’m keeping an open mind until more evidence is found. But none of that has anything to do with whales.

Fergus Mason

“Not a full kilometer inland, they wouldn’t.”

*sigh*

That’s the point. They WEREN’T stranded a kilometre inland; they were stranded ON THE BEACH. However the beach is no longer where it was 7 million years ago. You do know that coastlines move, don’t you?

Fergus Mason

Refuse to accept whatever you like. If skeletons were lying on a beach they could be buried by tidal action. They could have been buried by volcanic ash (which, as has been pointed out to you, would also explain the mix of species present.) In dry conditions the bones easily COULD have lain there for centuries. Or maybe not. Either way, I think we’ve established that these whales are in no way evidence for a global flood.

Natural Historian

I don’t know the geology of that particular area other than the sedimentary rock is rather “recent.” What would be important to know and need to be discounted is volcanic ash deposits associated with the fossils. This area is highly volcanic and a shallow basin hit by a large ash fall would easily explain birds, seals and whale fossils all found in proximity. It is likely that volcanism would also be iterative and thus cause similar local extinctions several times and is an excellent preservation media.

Fergus Mason

“It certainly did.”

No, it certainly didn’t. Schweitzer and Asara have admitted that one of their “collagen” samples was too weak to state that it actually WAS collagen, and have refused to release the data on the other six. As for claims that it was bleeding, that’s just ridiculous.

“Since when does microbial contamination have all of the characteristics of polymorphonuclear leukocytes?”

Since when did Schweitzer find any of those in the fossil?

Natural Historian

I don’t get it, why keep talking about how they got inland. Shoreline change over time. Plenty of evidence of that. And I did some more reading and the rock that these fossils is embedded in is diatomaceous earth which is not indicative of a shore or inland site anyway. It is indicative of a shallow basin.

As I have said elsewhere, So there are some that claim this is a great mystery because of the number of whale fossils in one location all together and above sea level. First it should be noted that the rock the fossils are found in is diatomaceous earth which is rock which consists of high numbers of diatoms. Diatoms are single celled algae that produce silicon walls and thus are very easily preserved. They are found in fresh water and salt water but large deposits are usually associated with shallow ocean basins where diatoms “bloom” in the waters above and die with the silicon “shells” falling to the ocean floor. If whales have died and their bones are resting on the ocean floor the diatoms can accumulate and bury the bones creating a glass tomb for the bones while they fossilize. In the situation here there is a layer of diatomacious earth covering this region that is filled with whale, dolphin, seal and other fossil bones. While young earth creationists are claiming this is the result of whales being trapped in a global flood. These bones suggest the opposite. Underneath them are thousands of feet of sediments and then near the very top is this layer of diatoms which would only collect in thick layers like this where there was relatively placid water above and falling diatoms rather than mixed up sediments being deposited quickly. The fact that all the whales in in the same layer of rock across this area also suggests a particular incident in some period of time rather than whales being caught in a large global catastrophe that is laying down all the layers of rock at the same time.

Genghis

The distance “inland” is immaterial and just another example of creationists ignoring basic geography and distorting a single fact to make it sound more impressive. First of all we need to consider the elevation difference because in coastal plains high tides or tsunamis might actually ingress several kilometres, so the disance from the current shoreline is a non-issue. The conditions at Bahia Inglesa 7 million years ago could be significantly different from modern ones. We are also talking about somewhere that is on the edge of a continental plate and could have been subject to uplift independent of any variation in sea level. We know that sea levels have been much lower within relatively recent geological history – in geological timeframes the English Channel was formed only yesterday and the existence of raised beaches well above current tidal zones shows that there have been significant changes in global sea levels. Whales vist the Gulf of California every year to breed and it might only take a an earthquake to cut them off from the wider ocean. With no means of exit to their feeding grounds they and all the marine fauna with them would starve. So they would die under water and not have to beach themselves.

Fergus Mason

But Terry, nobody CARES about the “cardinal rule of uniformitarianism.” We’re all perfectly aware that processes don’t always proceed at the same rate. They can speed up, slow down, even stop or reverse themselves. So what? That has nothing to do with modern science and if it’s the best objection you can come up with I don’t really think anything more needs to be said.

1Lishell

“(Almost every mountain chain in the world lines up north-to-south. Wonder why?)”

Actually, that’s not true. Although most mountain chains in the Americas run north-south, most chains in Eurasia and Northern Africa run east-west. See e.g. the Alps, Himalayas, Pyrenees, Caucasus, Brecon Beacons, Balkans, and Atlas.

Genghis

Now here’s a thing Terry, when you say The concentration of eighty whale skeletons all in one spot gives me every reason to suspect that a single event trapped them all there at once I agree with you. Most geologists recognise that special conditions are required to produce fossils otherwise we would have a lot more. In fact it is the creationists who keep demanding more fossils because every time mainstream geology locates a transitional fossil the creationists demand two more to fill the new gaps either side.  We can never win that game. 

But oh dear Terry, you don’t really understand this geology lark, do you? Uniformitarianism in the way that you use the term is nothing more than a creationist strawman; no modern secular geologist uses ‘uniformitarianism’ in the way you imply. In fact, it was actually a catastrophist, William Whewell,  who coined the term in the first place. Now let’s examine your definition  ‘that anything which changes over time changes at the same rate over all time’. This is total codswallop, the principle is that the same physical processes occur and progress at the same rate under the same conditions; however, conditions vary -every geologist knows that. The sun has cycles of activity,   the Earth has seasons which are cyclical,  days are cyclical, we even know that ice-ages occur roughly cyclically. So why would any geologist think otherwise? The Earth and its climate is a chaotic system and the distribution of the land masses affects the way the ocean currents and atmosphere interact so weather patterns will vary as the continents drift around the globe. What, scientists do maintain to be constant are the laws of physics and chemistry.  While the term uniformitarianism is still used its meaning is  more akin to the European concept of actualism. The Earth 3 billion years ago was a very different kettle of fish from what it is today with a different atmosphere and different surface rocks. Modern geologists even accept that catastrophes took place: these might range from an ice-dammed lake breaking free, a mountainside in the Canaries dropping into the Atlantic causing a megatsunami, a super caldera in Yellowstone erupting,  the dramatic release of energy when the San Andreas fault gives way,  or a large asteroid hitting the earth and wiping out the dinosaurs. What they don’t include is the magical appearance and disappearance of 5 miles of water to cover the planet, or the Earth’s mantle turning into a gigantic nuclear reactor but somehow not frying the sole survivors of the aforementioned flood into radioactive crisps.  

So lets’s spell out how modern geology interprets the historical record:  “no powers are to be employed that are not natural to the globe, no action is to be admitted except those which we understand and can observe”. 

One thing you really need to understand about science is that it is not static. At one time it was catastrophism (let’s be honest, it was really just the Noahic flood idea) that held sway and then a uniformitarianism model was proposed. We also went from the  Neptunic theory of rock formation to the Plutonic. As data were gathered geology encompassed all these ideas because that’s what the data support, not because of any dogmatic preconceptions.

Uplifts take place through a process known as isostasy. This is similar to how an iceberg floats in water. The lighter continents (or ice) are in equilibrium as they float on the denser underlying rocks (or water) but as mountains are eroded over time or collapse because of faulting or volcanic activity and then they readjust their balance. Currently, northern Europe is experiencing  uplift because of the loss of mass caused by the retreat  of the ice sheets from the most recent ice-age. As an area of land experiences uplift in one part it might experience lowering  in another. If you watch nature programmes about the Antarctic you can see large icebergs readjust themselves as they break up and what was underwater suddenly appear above the water. The fact that whale fossils have been found above the current sea-level does not mean that they were deposited at that level, they could have easily been buried at a much lower level and then lifted up as the South American plate rides up over the Pacific plate.  It is not a problem for secular geology despite what you might like to think.

Turning to your bizarre claim that every mountain chain aligns north-south, have you ever looked at a relief map of the world? What about the Himalayas or the Alps, or the Atlas mountains? Even the mountains of Turkey which contains your precious Mt. Ararat are aligned east-west, while the Appalachians or more northeast-southwest

Genghis

Pedantic correction, I said ‘sole survivors’ instead of ‘few survivors’ – there would obviously only be one sole survivor.

Fergus Mason

‘“Lying Lyell” said that geological processes that you see in operation today, have always operated at the exact same rate since time immemorial.’

So what? Lyell wrote Principles of Geology in 1833. This may come as a surprise to you, but most of us believe that old books become irrelevant when replaced by newer ones incorporating more research. I am utterly uninterested in what Lyell said about the rate of geological processes, because guess what? Great as he was in his day, I know more about geology than he did – just as I know more about biology than Darwin and more about gravity than Newton.

If you’re arguing against modern science on the basis of a book written in 1833, you’ve lost the argument.

Genghis

Fergus, I’m afraid Terry’s arguing against modern science on the basis of book written two millennia ago.

Fergus Mason

The one distorting science is you. Science does not say that processes must act at a constant rate, which is why nobody cares when they don’t.

Fergus Mason

“But uniformitarians do.”

No, they don’t. They say that the same processes are acting, but not that rates remain constant. Again you are trying to oppose modern science with the science of the early 19th century. That isn’t going to work.

Fergus Mason

Actually the insstence on constant rates was abandoned well over 150 years ago. As for constant rates of radioactive decay that’s a completely different issue. See, we know enough about how atoms work, and the forces that hold them together, to know EXACTLY what would be required for decay rates to have changed significantly, and it isn’t compatible with the continued existence of matter.

Fergus Mason

No, being in a plasma state doesn’t affect the atomic nucleus or the forces that hold it together; it only affects the electron shells.

As for your hydroplate stuff, “nonsense” is the kindest word I can use.

Fergus Mason

“What state do you think that atoms have to be in, before you can combine them to make heavier elements?”

So what? We’re talking about decay here, not fusion. More smokescreens. Decay rates are constant; for them to have changed significantly would require variations in fundamental forces that are not compatible with the existence of matter.

These whale fossils aren’t evidence for a flood, are they?

Fergus Mason

“80 or so baleen whales, of a type not known for beaching and certainly not for mass stranding”

How do YOU know they’re not known for mass stranding? They’re EXTINCT. As for birds being nearby, I have already explained this to you: carrion feeders.

“Whatever killed those whales, took them so completely by surprise that they never had time to escape.”

You have no way of knowing that.

“Animals sense a disaster coming and generally can escape.”

Rubbish. Animals get killed in disasters all the time. What if the whales beached while trying to escape predators? What if an earthquake stranded them in a lagoon? What if they were killed by shock from an explosive underwater eruption?

“That something was a disaster that was global in scope.”

Groundless speculation.

Fergus Mason

Humpbacks are indeed a modern species of baleen whale and, as you’ll find out of you Google “humpback whale strandings,” they turn up on beaches all the time. As for the whales found in Chile, though, they’re an extinct species and, as I said, you have NO IDEA how they behaved.

Fergus Mason

Once again, we are talking about an EXTINCT SPECIES. You can’t reliably predict their behaviour based on modern species because it just doesn’t work that way. Here’s an example: lions and tigers are both big cats. One is a social animal with a clearly defined group structure that lives on the veldt and preys on herd animals, with most hunting being done by the females. The other is a solitary jungle ambush predator. They’re so similar that if you skin them most zoologists can’t tell them apart, but their behaviour is COMPLETELY different.

In any case baleen whales DO beach. I told you: Google it.

Genghis

Uniformitarianism, you keep using that word but I do not think it means what you think it means.

Genghis

LOL Terrry, the definition that you use hasn’t been in mainstream use for over 60 years. Certainly my copy of Principles of Physical Geology by Arthur Holmes first published in 1944 dispels that notion.

Fergus Mason

That’s just splitting hairs. The fact is that in geology, uniformitarianism does NOT mean processes always act at the same rate, and by insisting that it does you are being either badly informed or dishonest.

Fergus Mason

“If uniformitarianism doesn’t mean that anymore, then the whole case for the geological column has just collapsed.”

No, that’s absurd. Uniformitarianism certainly does NOT mean constant rates, and nobody’s used it that way for a long time, but there’s no reason at all why that should invalidate the geolocical column, because THAT isn’t based on constant rates either. Are you saying that we should leave scientific theories as they are and never update them in light of new evidence? If so, fortunately, scientists don’t agree with you.

Fergus Mason

“If rates are no longer predictable, then you cannot date the fossils from their depth in the column.”

Nope. Do you honestly think fossils are dated by simple measurement of depth? Well, they aren’t. Inconstant rates are no problem at all for teh geological column.

“One of the primary pillars of evolution is assuming a constant rate of erosion or sedimentation.”

That’s just utter rubbish.

Fergus Mason

No Terry, they don’t just make it up as they go along. Layers in the geological column are not dated by simple depth; they are dated by radiometric dating, annual pollen layers, varves and a while bunch of other indicators. It isn’t done with a measuring tape. Neither geology nor biology depend on a constant rate and, again, by claiming they do you are exposing either a lack of knowledge or a lack of integrity.

If the geologocal column isn’t valid, why do we never find trilobites in the same layers as fish?

Fergus Mason

“Radiometric dating, as I have said repeatedly, relies on circular definitions and assumptions that are no longer tenable”

No, it doesn’t; it depends on observed facts and a solid understanding of the forces that hold atoms together.

“The rest depends strictly on the a priori assumption that the earth is old.”

No such assumption exists. 250 years ago all scientists assumed that the Earth is YOUNG. They changed their minds because of evidence, an ability that you seem to lack.

“And every now and again, you hear of a site in which lots of fossils appeared “out of order.””

Yes, and in every case there is a geological explanation, usually involving rock intrusions. I ask again: why do we never find trilobites in the same layer as fish?

Fergus Mason

“They mistakenly assumed that all the Dynasties of Egypt ran consecutively”

Nonsense. We know that the dynasties ran consecutively because there are surviving ancient Egyptian writings that make that quite clear.In any case, as the dynasties were the kings of Egypt, OF COURSE they ran consecutively.

“The whole geological column is flood silt.”

Rubbish. If that were the case the entire column would consist of a single immense graded bed. Needless to say it doesn’t. A single flood can’t explain layers of sandstone above layers of mudstone. It can’t explain igneous rock sandwiched between sedementary layers.

“hydrological sorting”

So then, why do we never find trilobites in the same layer as fish?

Genghis

I’d be interested to know whether Terry thinks that every sedimentary rock is a flood deposit because creationist geologists are all over the shop when it comes to saying what is antediluvian and what isn’t .

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