3D scanning using a high-resolution laser arm and mid-range surface scanners on a fossil rorqual (MPC 677) from Cerro Ballena in 2011. Source: The Smithsonian
3D scanning using a high-resolution laser arm and mid-range surface scanners on a fossil rorqual (MPC 677) from Cerro Ballena in 2011. Source: The Smithsonian

Scientists from the Smithsonian, a group of museums and research centers funded by the U.S. government, spent a week 3D scanning the entire dig site of a whale graveyard excavation site called Cerro Ballena found in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile.

The whale graveyard was discovered in 2010 during road construction along the Pan-American Highway. Paleontologists found a rich fossil site containing dozens of whale skeletons and remains of other extinct marine mammals and vertebrates.

In 2011, paleontologists from Chile and the United States worked together to conduct rapid documentation and digitization of this remarkable site before road construction was completed in the early part of 2012.

Scientists discovered that the whales’ deaths may have been caused by eating prey that had been contaminated from toxins produced by harmful algal blooms. When the whales died, their bodies floated towards the coast and were washed into a tidal flat by waves. When the whales’ bodies were stranded on the tidal flat, they were isolated from marine scavengers and eventually buried by sand, thus preserving their bones for the researchers to find.

The Smithsonian began a 3D digitization project called X 3D Explorer that has produced 3D scans of important and historical objects from the museums that are available for free to the public. These scans can be 3D printed for educational, non-commercial use. The 3D scans of the whale graveyard will be included in this collection.

The Smithsonian plans to 3D print one of the best preserved whale skeletons, which Nick Pyenson, Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, stated will be “the largest 3D print of its kind.”

Some of the members of the scientific team involved in Cerro Ballena includes the principal investigator, Dr. Nicholas D. Pyenson (Smithsonian Institution), and co-principal investigators Dr. Carolina S. Gutstein (Universidad de Chile), Prof. James F. Parham (California State University, Fullerton), Dr. Jacobus Le Roux (Universidad de Chile), Dr. David Rubilar Rogers (Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, Santiago), and Mr. Mario E. Suárez (Universidad de Chile). 3D digitization support comes from the Smithsonian's Digitization Program Office 3D Lab.

Read more about the Smithsonian’s Research at the Cerro Ballena Site