Science & Technology

Chile’s Atacama Desert: Latin America’s forgotten paleontological treasure

By Patricia Nieto Mariño

Santiago, Oct 25 (EFE).- The remains of extinct shark species, prehistoric whales and ancient birds are some of the fossilized finds being made in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, a zone that is a valuable laboratory for studying the history and evolution of animals and that experts from around the world call a heretofore underappreciated “paleontological treasure.”

At Bahia Inglesa, a small cove where Pacific Ocean waters penetrate the Chilean coast, one can walk on sand and bones. It’s easy to unearth the femurs of penguins or to find cetacean vertebrae. This is one of the hotspots for fossils in the Atacama Desert region, more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) from Santiago.

“Here, we have one of the largest volumes of paleontological (material) in the world. Many remains are not so relevant, but others are real treasures of worldwide importance,” archaeologist Pablo Quilondran told EFE at the Los Dedos Paleontological Park.

During the 1980s, bones that in other parts of the world would be displayed in prestigious museums were used in Chile by artisans to make collector-quality artwork, said Quilondron, who heads Ciahn, the Atacama Paleontology Research and Advancement Corporation.

In this area have been found the remains of a pelagornis, the largest extinct bird identified so far, parts of a unique marine sloth, and countless teeth from the megalodon, an ancient shark.

Amid the curves of the Pan-American Highway, which winds through the Americas from north to south, is Cerro Ballena, a small hill that owes its name to the discovery of dozens of fossils of whales (“ballena” in Spanish) in an unprecedented state of preservation.

A construction company that was going to expand a portion of the highway, which is vital for the transport of mining equipment and output – Chile’s main economic pillar – in 2010 found the remains of more than 40 whales.

The find caught the attention of the Smithsonian Institution in the United States and scientists from all over the world began coming to Chile to delve into this “whale cemetery in the middle of the desert,” Osvaldo Rojas, the director of the Natural History Museum in Calama, told EFE.

“The reasons are still not clear, but the thinking is that the marine currents made this bay into a very attractive zone for the fauna that inhabited the area at the end of the Miocene, some seven million years ago,” Rodrigo Otero, a paleontologist with the University of Chile, told EFE.

In addition, this desert – where the most ancient human mummies in the world have been found, those from the Chinchorro culture – is the world’s driest non-polar zone, “a unique condition that contributes to preserving the remains in good shape for long periods of time.”

The latest big find was of a type of pterosaur from the Jurassic known as the “flying dragon,” from some 160 million years ago and famous for its sharply pointed tail in the shape of a rhombus and identified earlier this year.

“Something like that had never been found in Latin America or in all of Gondwana – the ancient mega-continent that included present-day South America, Antarctica, Madagascar, India and Australia,” he said.

The local residents of the Atacama Desert, which made headlines when 33 miners became trapped deep underground there in 2010, for years have been trying to advocate for the paleontological patrimony of the area, which little by little has been gaining recognition in the international community.

“For years, we remained forgotten, behind Argentina (as a paleontological zone). Now we’ve recently taken off and our valuable discoveries are being appreciated,” Rojas told EFE.

The lack of paleontological experts and financing for such museums in the region, which up to now have been rather precariously administered by local towns, are some of the reasons for the lag, experts say.

“Unveiling the origin of life should be a priority,” said Rojas. “If we don’t know our past, we can’t look into the future very well.”


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