When Dinosaurs Roamed Antarctica

Scientists endure harsh conditions to unearth fossils in Antarctica.

Jan 24, 2018 6:00 AMNov 20, 2019 9:43 PM


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Photo Credits: J. A. Clarke

In addition to dinosaurs, scientists in Antarctica frequently find fossils from other prehistoric creatures.

In 1992, researchers found a bird-like skeleton on Vega Island, dating to between 68 and 66 million years old. Julia Clarke, an NSF-funded paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), described the fossil as belonging to a new species related to today’s ducks and geese, and gave it the name Vegavis iaai. Clarke used a noninvasive technique at UT Austin’s High-Resolution X-ray Computed Tomography Facility, an NSF-funded multi-user facility, to create a 3-D, computed tomographic image of the V. iaai fossil. On closer examination, she identified V. iaai’s syrinx, or voice box – the oldest ever found.

In 2006, facing 70-mile-per-hour winds, a U.S.-Argentinian research team recovered one of the most complete skeletons of a plesiosaur, a prehistoric marine reptile that lived in the Southern Ocean.

Photo Credits: Photo taken by J. Meng, AMNH

Members of the Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project, or AP3, make camp on Seymour and Vega islands in the Antarctic Peninsula region, a crucial area for fossils. NSF, through the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), funds the activities of and logistically supports AP3, which conducted expeditions to Antarctica in 2009, 2011 and 2016. Led by paleontologists, the AP3 team also comprises geologists, anatomists, ecologists and biologists. The group is focused on unearthing fossils from dinosaurs that lived between 100 and 40 million years ago, what scientists refer to as the Cretaceous-Paleogene, or K-Pg, a period that marks the end of the age of dinosaurs and the rise of mammals.

Photo Credits: © N.D. Smith

The foot and ankle bone seen here belonged to a large, plant- eating sauropodomorph called Glacialisaurus hammeri, a new genus and species of dinosaur that lived during the Early Jurassic period, approximately 190 million years ago. The leg bone would have fit into the depression seen at top. Below this, the start of four toe bones are visible from left to right.

A team of NSF-funded researchers excavated this and other fossils from a quarry at Mount Kirkpatrick in the Transantarctic Mountains. Fossils from the carnivorous Cryolophosaurus were also found at the site.

Sauropodomorphs are known to have coexisted with sauropods, whose members include the long-necked, long-tailed Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus.

Photo Credits: D. Gordon E. Robertson (CC BY – SA 4.0 – 3.0 – 2.5 – 2.0 – 1.0)

Even now, an NSF-funded research team encamped at Shackleton Glacier continues the search for fossils of dinosaurs and other animals. Their work will be the subject of a new exhibit, “Antarctic Dinosaurs,” opening in June 2018 at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.

Exhibits like these ensure that discoveries from hard-to-reach places are nevertheless accessible to the public. They also celebrate the scientists, many of them NSF-funded, who persevered in the toughest of environments to wring new chapters from the planet’s prehistoric past.

The images in this National Science Foundation gallery are copyrighted and may be used only for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial purposes. Credits must be provided.

Photo Credits: Joseph Sertich, Denver Museum of Nature & Science

In this image, paleontologists look for dinosaur fossils on James Ross Island.

James Ross Island off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula and the Beardmore Glacier region thousands of miles away are Antarctica’s dinosaur boneyards. At the time of the dinosaurs, the island would have been at the bottom of the sea and the mountains surrounding Beardmore Glacier would have been low-lying riverbeds, eventually shoved skyward by tectonic activity.

On a 2003 expedition, two research teams made simultaneous fossil finds at the two locations roughly a week apart. A team at James Ross Island discovered the fossilized bones of what turned out to be a therapod, a carnivorous dinosaur related to tyrannosaurs. The other team, working on Mount Kirkpatrick near the Beardmore Glacier, found the pelvis of a primitive, plant-eating sauropod.

Photo Credits: James St. John (CC BY 2.0)

In 1991, William Hammer, an NSF-funded researcher hunting for fossils in Antarctica’s Beardmore Glacier region, discovered this skull (left) and a large femur, which belonged to a completely unknown species of therapod – a bipedal, carnivorous dinosaur whose members include the more familiar tyrannosaurs and Velociraptors.

Cryolophosaurus ellioti, as the new therapod was later named, lived during the Early Jurassic period, approximately 190 million years ago. It was the second dinosaur, and the first carnivorous dinosaur, unearthed in Antarctica. The elevated bony crest seen here atop C. ellioti’s skull would have spanned its brow. Researchers believe C. ellioti used the crest to identify members of the same species, possibly for mating.

Photo Credits: Andy Sajor, National Science Foundation

Millions of years ago, dinosaurs living in Antarctica enjoyed a mild climate, temperate waters and abundant vegetation. Today, scientists looking for their fossils on that same continent face a much different place. Ice covers 99 percent of Antarctica, sudden snowstorms can bury dig sites, and gale-force winds scour the land. Extreme conditions in Antarctica are one reason this part of the dinosaur fossil record remained incomplete for so long.

Researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), have painstakingly recovered fossils from the southernmost continent. Their discoveries reveal how dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals lived and died in Antarctica, and how they moved between it and other parts of the world. This gallery highlights some of their discoveries, and shows what it takes for scientists to operate in one of the least hospitable places on Earth, which, as it turns out, played a key role in the evolution and migration of the planet’s vertebrates, including mammals.

Left: Researchers at a camp near the Beardmore Glacier, where fossils from meat-eating theropods and plant-eating sauropods were found.

To learn more, go to nsf.gov.

Photo Credits: Photo taken by J. Meng, AMNH

Researchers trying to access Antarctica hitch rides on a variety of NSF-funded vessels, including the Nathaniel B. Palmer research ship, seen here in the background. The scientific research vessel can operate year-round in Antarctic waters and is equipped with small boats that ferry researchers to and from the Antarctic shoreline. It can also be modified to accommodate helicopters to meet specific research goals, including searching for fossils.

The NSF-managed U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), which supports all U.S. scientific research and related logistics on the continent, operates two research vessels – the Nathaniel B. Palmer and the Laurence M. Gould – and plays a critical role in facilitating other aspects of Antarctic fossil-finding expeditions.

Photo Credits: Philip J. Currie, University of Alberta

To liberate fossils encased in frozen rock, scientists use a number of tools, including jackhammers, rock saws, chisels, pickaxes and, on occasion, explosives. Here, NSF-funded paleontologists Peter Makovicky and Nathan Smith from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History use jackhammers to drill through rock during a 2010-2011 expedition.

Because most of Antarctica is covered by ice and snow, scientists hunting for fossils are limited to rocky outcrops, generally in mountainous areas. Geologists help date exposed rocks, letting paleontologists identify sites where they are likely to find fossils from specific prehistoric time periods.

Photo Credits: Eva Koppelhus

Helicopters like the one seen here help researchers in Antarctica access hard-to-reach areas and collect large, intact specimens that can weigh more than 100 pounds. Preserving an intact specimen allows researchers to extract additional information; for example, about the environment where the animal died. It also prevents the loss of important physiological information, since researchers need not carve up the specimen in order to carry it back to camp on foot.

PHI Inc., a helicopter service based out of Lafayette, Louisiana, flies the Antarctic program’s helicopters under a contract with the U.S. government.

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