Fossil forests in the freezer

South of the craggy limits of Patagonia, Africa and Tasmania, and beyond the piercing gales of the roaring forties and the furious fifties, lies Antarctica – the last great continent on Earth to be explored. Straddling the South Pole, it lies frozen in a winter that has lasted millions of years. Today, only a few plant species more robust than mosses eke out a harsh existence on its warmest fringes. The bitter cold and screaming katabatic winds (a katabatic wind is one that carries high density air down a slope under the force of gravity) that drain off the continental interior mean that few plants and animals can survive in Antarctica year-round. However, this has not always been the case. Through much of deep time, it has not been the ‘white continent’ but a land of green forests and lush swamps. This forested landscape provided habitats for a wide range of terrestrial animals for most of the past 400 million years. The continent’s central location within the ancient southern supercontinent of Gondwana also meant that it held an important role in the exchange of plants and animals between the southern lands.

Map of Antarctica showing the Permian-Triassic basins.

Early clues

Little was known about Antarctica’s geology or fossil heritage until ‘the heroic era of exploration’ began to unlock the continent’s secrets in the 1800s. Some of the first explorers to realize that vegetation once clothed Antarctica’s landscape were the members of Captain Robert Scott’s team, who discovered coal and plant fossils on their ill-fated South Pole expedition in 1911. Scott’s team doctor, Edward Wilson, discovered the fossils on Mt Buckley, near the Beardmore Glacier, during their descent of the Transantarctic Mountains on the return journey from the Pole. Although the plant remains were not particularly well preserved, such was the significance that the team placed on this discovery that they hauled the 16kg of fossils along with them on their impossible journey back towards McMurdo Sound. A search team found the bodies of Scott and two of his companions on the Ross Ice Shelf in the following spring, and beside them was the collection of fossilized Permian leaves. The fossils were later taken back to London where they were formally described by the eminent palaeobotanist, Sir AC Seward. These specimens reside today in the collections of the Natural History Museum.

The remote Prince Charles Mountains. This vast series of mountains was only discovered after the Second World War by chance observations of aircraft pilots.

2. LichenLichens are about the only modern ‘plants’ living in the remote Prince Charles Mountains.

3. AppleHutsRound fibreglass ‘Apple’ huts provide relative luxury accommodation in the field and can be slung beneath a helicopter when a change of campsite is needed. An extra panel can be added to an Apple to create a ‘Melon’ hut.

Since the 1800s, Antarctica has been studied intensively and, today, several thousand researchers visit the continent annually. Plant fossils have now been recovered from rocks of Devonian to Pliocene age (400 to 3 million years). In some places, the remains have accumulated in such abundance that they form thick coal seams. According to the current treaty system, all territorial claims to the continent are held in abeyance. However, the main national players in Antarctic palaeontology have tended to confine their activities to specific regions. The UK and Argentina work mostly in the Antarctic Peninsula, the Nordic nations work mostly in Dronning Maud Land, while the USA and New Zealand focus their efforts in the Transantarctic Mountains and West Antarctica. Australia, whose territorial claims cover about a quarter of the entire continent, mainly targets East Antarctica, south of the Indian Ocean.

8a. WoodBoredRings8b. WoodPockets
8c. CoprolitesA piece of 260 million year old Permian fossil wood from Antarctica showing prominent growth rings, with cavities arranged regularly in the latewood. Closer inspection revealed that these cavities contain tiny coprolites – the fossil dung of wood-eating insect larvae.

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