We are camping in the Allan Hills, which is about 90 miles north of McMurdo Station in the Transantarctic Mountains. What we are doing here in Antarctica is studying fossil plants and fossil forests in the early Jurassic about 180 million years ago. We have been camping here for about a week, and the purpose of this camp is that we have helicopters land here and pick us up and we go and work at different localities to find plant fossils. We also work locally on foot looking at plant fossils in the surrounding stratigraphy.
This comes from Carapace Nunatak, and it is Jurassic in age. The whole set up of Carapace is basically a lot of basalt flows coming into like lake sediments and other environments. Most of it is in the mountain itself, but over time, a lot of this erodes out. This material we actually found on the moraine, so you could just walk around and pick up the material on the moraine, which makes it a lot safer for us and easier to collect material. Here’s a nice specimen here, and you can see various lines in here, some are distorted. But all the plant material occurs in these dark lines.
We have in the last week actually increased the known diversity of plant fossils on Antarctica in the Triassic. We have uncovered some brand new fossils we don’t really know much about. They are brand new to Antarctica. We have also discovered a tremendous amount of diversity of plant life in the Triassic, just for this locality alone. So this is a very important find here….some leaf fossils there, some Dicroidium here, I see a Ginkgo leaf there, so if you continue to break these layers open you might find more complete preservation of those leaves, and what we are seeing are just a little fragment of the leaves on the exteriors of these bedding plains here.
This is a piece of Triassic wood, and this one is really rare because you have the stem that is connected to the root; and that is pretty amazing. This is from a fossil forest that was just found yesterday actually, so it was really great. To actually find a forest, which is in situ, which means that’s where it was originally when it died, is extraordinary rare. This is one of about 37 these in situ trees at this forest – really incredible. A lot of them are pretty rotten out and that is really great for looking at the ecology, like what were they doing there, how did they die, how was the ecosystem back in the Mesozoic. And so, a really great find.
We really don’t have plants that exist at polar latitudes today: If you continue the current trend of climate change, we might see different ecosystems migrating in a northern hemisphere towards the North Pole. Bur we don’t understand exactly how that type of plant migration will occur, which plants will move northward, and what will happen to the ecosystems at more southerly altitudes. And so, the importance of these fossils in Antarctica is that they preserve that record of that plant community change, that plant migration – and that all is basically crystalized in the fossil record.
Our job, of course, is trying to reconstruct the plants. And as you can imagine, it is quite hard because this is pretty much like a salad or a compost heap. We have to use different characters of the plant to try to put the right plants together, the right parts. A little bit of detective work.
This is essentially a career. I mean you could spend your entire career, like decades of work on this; for example, this piece. You can look at this and you can cut it up and you can describe it anatomically, morphologically. You can give it a new species name. I can look at the microbial component of this. You can give this to a geochemist, and they can look at the chemistry of it so what was present here. You can give it to a sedimentary geologist and they can say, “This is how it was preserved; this is the type of landscape it was in.” So there is an entire multitude of questions that can come from just a single piece. And that’s the really incredible part of our job. You can answer just so many questions with this and probably things that we haven’t even thought of today. It just keeps on building. It never ends, and that is great.