February 2, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Hundreds of Whales Buried Suddenly in Diatoms

A remarkable fossil find has been found in Peru: 346 whales buried in diatomaceous earth. The preservation of the whales is so pristine and complete, the authors of the paper in the Feb. 2004 issue of Geology1 conclude that the whales had to be buried rapidly, in days or weeks. If so, it represents a rate of accumulation of diatoms many times higher than what occurs in modern oceans.

The authors point out some amazing things about this fossil deposit:

  • Condition:  The whale skeletons are “preserved in pristine condition (bones articulated [i.e., still assembled] or at least closely associated), in some cases including preserved baleen.”
  • Fine details:  “The most complete whale (WCBa 20) was fully articulated; the microscopic detail of its baleen was preserved … and there is black, heavy-mineral replacement of the spinal cord and some intervertebral disks. There were no similar minerals in the surrounding sediment. These nonbony tissues were still present when the whale was completely buried.” Other instances of baleen, the delicate straining structure of the whale’s mouth, were also found.
  • Vertical extent:  “The 346 whales within ~1.5 km2 of surveyed surface were not buried as an event, but were distributed uninterrupted through an 80-m-thick sedimentary section.” Since they were found uniformly distributed from bottom to top of the formation, the conditions in which they were buried must have also been uniform.
  • Unlaminated strata:  “The diatomaceous sediment lacks repeating primary laminations, but instead is mostly massive, with irregular laminations and speckles.” In other words, it was not due to a cyclic process, like the annual climate change that produces tree rings.
  • Lack of bioturbation:  Small organisms have not altered the deposit. “There is no evidence for bioturbation by invertebrates in the whale-bearing sediment.” Apparently they didn’t have the chance, it happened so fast.
  • Intact diatoms:  “If most diatoms dissolve before preservation in the sediment, one would find frustules in all stages of dissolution. Diatoms in the Pisco diatomaceous sediment are often broken, but SEM study indicated fine preservation, with no significant evidence of dissolution. … In the shallow-water Pisco Formation, the diatoms were probably buried too quickly for much dissolution to occur.” The authors point out that in contemporary diatom deposits, only 2-3% of the frustules (glass shells) usually remain undissolved, up to 24% in special cases in Antarctica.
  • Stormy waters:  Something violent was going on when these were buried. “Indicators of storm deposits, such as hummocky cross-bedding, indicate that the sediments were deposited above storm wave base.”
  • Single event:  There are no indicators that the burial occurred over years of time. “There are no varves or other cyclical laminations, but randomly located individual white laminations and speckles consist primarily of diatoms (5%-10% clay), whereas the surrounding massive grayish diatomite … has a higher clay content.”
  • Numbers:  “The whales occur in large numbers, 30-300 individuals per square kilometer of surface exposure … and are fully articulated … to disarticulated but with skeletal elements still closely associated.” This hints there are probably many more than the 346 whales they found in their study area.
  • Other species:  “Vertebrate fossils in the Pisco Formation include sharks, fish, turtles, seals, porpoises, ground sloths, penguins, and whales,” but the study area primarily included whales and shark teeth.

This is, of course, an amazing fossil discovery, but what does it mean? For one thing, it means that scientists have vastly underestimated how rapidly diatoms can accumulate. Common estimates have been 10 cm per 1000 years, maybe up to 260 cm/k.y. in certain cases. But in this case, clearly, “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.” The lack of bioturbation is another indicator the diatoms formed in extraordinary numbers and buried these whales quickly:

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. Sediment accumulating at a few centimeters per thousand years would deposit at maximum a few millimeters of diatomite during the time available to preserve even a reasonably complete whale skeleton. Preservation of nonmineralized tissue would not be a realistic possibility at this slow burial rate, and even bones are unlikely to be well preserved.

For another thing, this discovery means that a large catastrophe occurred here. To get this many whales buried suddenly at one time requires envisioning a perfect storm beyond anything observed today. In addition, the rapid bloom in diatom number means they had to have nourishment. The authors found evidence of volcanism in the area which might have provided nutrients to the microscopic algae: “Volcanic ash, common in the Pisco sedimentary deposits, and runoff from the continent could have contributed iron and other nutrients.” This suggests that volcanic eruptions were occurring around the same time. Since these species of diatoms typically form in deeper water, the authors believe that currents could have swept up vast numbers of diatom shells and concentrated them into shallow bays where the whales were trapped.

The Pisco formation is labeled Miocene-Pliocene in the geologic column. The authors rule out two alternate hypotheses for the detailed preservation of the whales: (1) anoxia (that they suffocated), and (2) a covering of diatom mats. The only explanation left is rapid burial.

1Brand, Esperante, Chadwick, Porras and Alomia, “Fossil whale preservation implies high diatom accumulation rate in the Miocene-Pliocene Pisco Formation of Peru,” Geology Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 165-168, doi: 10.1130/G20079.1.

The Two-Charlie Party (Lyell+Darwin) does not own empirical geology. This is fine work by creationists and catastrophists, including Arthur V. Chadwick and some from Loma Linda’s Geoscience Research Institute who are accustomed to exemplary field work and publishing, as here, in reputable journals. We should not be surprised. Even the publisher of this paper, the Geological Society of America, which launched a crusade last month against a creationist geology book being sold in the Grand Canyon bookstore (see 01/08/2004), honors a “rock star” in this month’s issue of GSA Today, Clarence King (1842-1901) – a catastrophist. And this “pioneering geologist of the West” was not alone in his views:

King was convinced that Lyellian uniformitarianism, a theory of gradualism and constancy of processes, could not explain the geologic evolution of the region surveyed, especially late Cenozoic effusive volcanism and the magnitude of glacial drainages.  These views led King to be classed as a catastrophist. However, he was in good company with most late nineteenth century geologists in calling for greater variations of both rates and intensities of processes than Charles Lyell preached. King also believed that evolution did not proceed at a steady pace. Blending catastrophe and “adaptivity,” he proposed that the former was an integral part of the cause of change. Destruction of biological equilibrium engendered by catastrophic change contributed to rapid morphological change among what he termed “plastic species” … King in essence proposed a blending of Darwin’s ideas on natural selection with the variable rate of change of geological processes. Employing data on rock fusion gathered at the USGS Physical Laboratory, King (1893) attempted to advance to new precision Kelvin’s estimate of Earth’s age deduced from terrestrial refrigeration, determining a maximum age of 24 Ma. Given this young age, insufficient time remained to construct a Lyellian geologic record of the Fortieth Parallel area.

King made his conclusions based on work in the Sierra Nevada mountains. So even though Clarence King accepted some form of evolution, he was certainly no uniformitarian, and his young age determination must have only contributed to the fits that Lord Kelvin was giving to Charlie and his musketeers. (Darwin called Kelvin’s limit on the age of the earth an “odious spectre” and one of his “sorest troubles” because it did not allow enough time for evolution.) The point is, the authors of this paper are not the first to point out geological features that disprove uniformitarianism. Why does anyone even hang on to that falsified idea?

If the Peru whales were an isolated instance, it would be enough to give uniformitarians fits. But other similar finds have been found. A notable one is the world’s largest diatomite bed near Lompoc, north of Santa Barbara, California. Dozens of whales, and billions of herring fish have been buried in DE there, too, with indications of rapid burial and volcanic ash. Could these beds, on different continents, be related? If so, what would that mean? Connect the dots, but it doesn’t spell uniformitarianism, that’s for sure.

Diatoms (see also 02/19/2003 and 03/19/2002 entries) are amazing studies of beauty, elegance, strength and design in themselves. Trying to imagine the countless myriads of these little jewels involved in such fossil beds is an exercise in mind bogglemania.

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