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What Can Explain Hundreds of Fossilized Whales?

by  Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

Anyone who has walked the seashore can appreciate what routinely happens to fish that have been washed ashore. Often, before the next high tide comes in, birds and crabs have reduced the once-living creatures to a mass of scattered bones. A similar process takes place for dead creatures that sink to the bottom of the ocean. However, rather than being nibbled by birds and crabs, other deep-sea scavengers dissolve the dead creatures—even degrading their bones. Mammoth whales are even reduced to a pile of organic material over time. As Leonard Brand and his colleagues noted:

In modern oceans, whale carcasses on the ocean floor are rapidly colonized by large numbers of invertebrate scavengers that remove the flesh and begin to degrade the bone.... They also bioturbate the adjoining sediment in search of organic compounds leached from the whale. This process strips a whale skeleton within a maximum of a few years (2004, 32:166).

We are all aware that “dead tissue” does not remain intact very long on the Earth. As God was rebuking the sin of Adam and Eve, He proclaimed: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). But not all dead creatures are degraded by scavengers. Some find themselves under just the right conditions for fossilization to take place. This was the case in a 370-acre area of the Miocene-Pliocene Pisco Formation in Peru (about 180 miles south of Lima). Imagine scientists’ surprise when they realized they had uncovered not just a couple of fossilized whales—but literally hundreds. While discovering 346 fossilized whales is quite impressive, the fact that this particular preservation is so complete, and in such a pristine condition, indicates that normal degradation did not occur. In fact, the whales had to have been buried rapidly. This amazing discovery is featured in the February 2004 issue of Geology. Commenting on the unique find, Leonard Brand and coworkers observed that their collection included “abundant whales preserved in pristine condition (bones articulated or at least closely associated), in some cases including preserved baleen” (p. 165, parenthetical item in orig.).

The primary question we should ask is, how did this occur? The authors noted: “Thus, some set of unique conditions existed in coastal Peru to permit such unusual preservation” (p. 167, emp. added) Unique indeed! But exactly what were those conditions? Previously, scientists estimated that diatoms accumulated at slow rates (~10 cm per year, or maybe up to 260 cm/k.y. [k.y.= thousand years] under special circumstances) but in the current discovery, the researchers observed:

if the sedimentation rate was relatively constant over 10-12 m.y. [million years—BH] during deposition of the Pisco Formation, the diatomaceous sediment accumulated at <10 cm/k.y., which is consistent with other accumulation rates reported here. If these average rates of accumulation pertained through the fossiliferous portions of the diatomaceous sediment, however, it would have taken thousands of years to bury an individual whale (32:165).

Sediment accumulating at a few centimeters per thousand years would deposit at most a few millimeters of diatomite during the time available to preserve even a reasonably complete whale skeleton. As such, “normal” diatom accumulation rates do not explain how 346 whales were covered and so well preserved in the process. As Brand and his colleagues commented: “However, the whales are too well preserved for such slow burial processes” (p. 165). The researchers list three explanations for such a unique phenomenon: (1) anoxia; (2) a covering of diatom mats; and (3) rapid burial. After examining the available data, the scientists admitted that

The most viable explanation for whale preservation seems to be rapid burial, fast enough to cover whales 5-13 m long and ~50 cm thick within a few weeks or months, to account for whales with well-preserved bones and some soft tissues. Such burial requires diatom accumulation rates at least three to four orders of magnitude faster than is usual in the ocean today—centimeters per week or month, rather than centimeters per thousand years (p. 167).

The authors offered some insight as to just how such an event could have transpired by suggesting that the creatures may have stirred up some of the diatomaceous sediment as they sank, allowing it to settle on top of the carcasses. They concluded: “These self-burial processes could have hastened carcass burial somewhat” (p. 168). But what caused the massive number of whales to die in the first place, and what caused the rapid burial? Brand and his colleagues postulated that “it appears that the diatoms were not only gently settling out of the water column, but were also being advected and redeposited by currents resulting from tides and/or storms. A three-day storm along the Oregon coast formed a modern deposit of diatoms that was 10-15 cm thick and 32 km long” (p. 168, emp. added). While scientists continue to speculate about this curious finding, one can only wonder how much more evidence is needed that a global flood once covered the Earth. Could the Flood of Noah’s day possibly explain how 346 whales were buried so rapidly and completely in Peru?

REFERENCES

Brand, Leonard R., Raul Esperante, Arthur V. Chadwick, Orlando Poma Porras, and Merling Alomia (2004), “Fossil Whale Preservation Implies High Diatom Accumulation Rate in the Miocene—Pliocene Pisco Formation of Peru,” Geology, 32[2]:165-168, February.




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