June 29, 2007 / 3:59 PM / 10 years ago

Chilean teenagers find trove of whale fossils

LOS MAITENES, Chile (Reuters) - Chilean teenagers on a field trip have found what experts say could be a treasure trove of fossils from whales which died millions of years ago.

A general view of the area where students found fossils in Los Maitenes town, about 160 km (99 miles) northwest of Santiago, June 26, 2007. In the Town of Los Maitenes, in the central coast of Chile, a group of secondary students discovered some fossil remains of what could be a prehistoric whale cemetery during a workshop of paleontology. REUTERS/Eliseo Fernandez

Teenagers from a school in Concon, a town on the Pacific coast, found the fossils last month in the hills near the village of Los Maitenes, nearly four miles from the sea and 100 miles from the capital Santiago.

They found fossilized jawbones, backbones and ribs of four whales which scientists say likely died 5 million years ago.

Geologists expect to find more whale fossils in the area. “What we have to work out is whether we’re dealing with a few examples that have washed in on the tide or whether we’re talking about a real whale cemetery,” said Hernan Vergara, a marine geologist studying the find.

Vergara, who teaches at the nearby University of Valparaiso, said the gentle hills around Los Maitenes were once part of the sea bed.

The teenagers found the fossils while on a field trip with their biology teacher Veronica Andrade.

“We got to the place thinking we might find a bone, something small and some invertebrate fossils,” Andrade told Reuters. “But because the kids are restless they fanned out all over the area and they found lots of fragments close to the surface.”

Local authorities are hailing the discovery as one of the most important of its kind in central Chile and say they plan to declare the area a national monument, which would give the area protected status.

“I don’t know of any other find like this,” said Valparaiso Gov. Ricardo Bravo, who added the provincial government was considering building a natural history museum on the site.

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