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A Fossil Hunt At the Bottom of the World

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Home to penguins, particularly hardy mosses, and the occasional seal paying a visit to dry land, Antarctica is a unique and uniquely harsh environment. Snow and ice cover 98 percent of the landmass, and with wind chill, temperatures in the center of the continent can plunge to 100 degrees below zero.

AP3 Camp
A campsite in Antartica used by Museum researchers participating in the AP3 Expedition. 
© J. Meng

But it wasn’t always this way. Tens of millions of years ago, Antarctica was the heart of the supercontinent known as Gondwana, pressed between would-be South American and Australian continents at first and then likely joined to each by land bridges for millions of years after they started to drift apart. Though it was still at Earth’s southern pole, Antarctica was then much warmer. And, as fossils recovered there show, the continent was home to a diverse group of vertebrates, including non-avian dinosaurs and, later, during the Eocene period about 45 million years ago, mammals .

AP3 Fossil
Antarctic soil can yield a variety of fossils—in the rare spots where snow and ice don't cover the ground. 
© J. Meng

Paleontologists think the continent still has more fossils to yield—remnants which could show the dinosaurs that roamed there 65 million years ago shared the continent with even more ancient mammals. In February, Abagael West, a graduate student who studies South American mammals at Columbia University in a collaborative program with the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School (RGGS), joined Museum Curators Ross MacPhee and Jin Meng as they headed south on a seven-week expedition in search of the evidence.

“I’ve wanted to go to Antarctica ever since I found out it was a place,” West says. 

AP3 Boat
Museum researchers journeyed to Antarctica aboard the icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer.
© J. Meng

The trio were part of the Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project, known as AP3, a multi-year research initiative funded by the National Science Foundation that first sent scientists to the continent in 2007. (Dr. MacPhee was part of that original expedition, and both he and Dr. Meng went on a subsequent trip in 2011). This year, Museum scientists joined an international team of 12 researchers, including vertebrate paleontologists from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Natural History Museum, Ohio University, and University of Texas at Austin, as well as colleagues from Australia, the United Kingdom, and South Africa.

AP3 Zodiac
Members of the expedition navigated the icy waters of Antarctica in inflatable Zodiac watercraft.
© J. Meng

Their goal: to survey the James Ross Island group, off the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, for fossils of backboned animals from the Late Cretaceous through the Paleogene, an interval spanning from 100 million to 40 million years ago. While not exactly inviting, these islands are temperate enough to be partly free of snow and ice during the Antarctic summer, which spans December to early March. When the snow recedes, researchers can get to the rock and dirt that may hold valuable fossils, which are mostly unreachable elsewhere on the continent. MacPhee in particular was on the lookout for mammals.

“Towards the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, marsupials and early mammals likely came down from what is now South America, and traveled to what is now Australia,” says MacPhee. “We should see fossil evidence of this trip in Antarctica.”

To learn more about the AP3 expedition and its results, visit this blog next Friday, September 16. 

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of the Member magazine Rotunda.