May 9, 2018

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Antarctica Fossils Arrive in Seattle

Burke Museum and UW Researchers Discover over 100 fossil specimens

Burke PR

Seattle—As part of a recent research expedition to Antarctica, Burke Museum and University of Washington paleontologists discovered more than 100 fossil specimens in 56 localities, including two new localities, where vertebrate fossils had never been collected before.

Dr. Christian Sidor, Burke Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology and University of Washington (UW) Professor of Biology led the multi-institution research team to Antarctica for an 11-week expedition funded by the National Science Foundation, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program. The team found fossil bones, trace fossils including tracks and burrows, and plant impressions—all indications of what life was like about 250 million years ago.

The skeletal material includes small, salamander-like amphibians (temnospondyls), early reptiles such as Prolacerta and Procolophon, and distant mammal relatives like Lystrosaurus and Thrinaxodon. They also found several other species that will need additional research to determine what they were.

Not much is known about Antarctic amphibians, but Sidor believes that will change after this expedition. “In the past, we’ve known which families of amphibians have been there but not which species,” he said. “Because we found so many [amphibian fossils] and they’re so well-preserved, we’ll be able to tackle that question and know what species of amphibians lived in Antarctica after the mass extinction.”

In addition, they collected the first identifiable vertebrate fossils from the middle of the Fremouw Formation, which will help narrow down the age of those rocks. Fossils were previously found in the lower and upper parts of the Fremouw Formation, but not in the middle.

The Antarctic fossil record is one of the least understood in the world, due in large part to its remoteness, ice cover, and extreme conditions. There is much to learn, but Antarctic research is often difficult to do.

Collecting in Extreme Conditions

Sidor is very familiar with the logistics involved; this was his fourth research trip to Antarctica in the past 15 years to better understand how life recovered after the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, which happened about 252 million years ago and ushered in the era of dinosaurs.

Megan (Meg) Whitney, a graduate student in the UW Department of Biology, joined Sidor for her first trip to Antarctica. Whitney’s interest is in anatomy, but she didn’t want to be a medical doctor. “I wasn’t a dinosaur kid—I fell into [paleontology].” As part of her Ph.D., Whitney is studying the anatomy of fossil bones and teeth at a microscopic scale to understand how animals were affected by extreme seasonality at polar latitudes.

Sidor and Whitney were joined by paleontologists and geologists from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Field Museum, Southern Methodist University, and Iziko South African Museum.

After arriving at McMurdo Station and completing two weeks of trainings, the team flew to what would be their home for the next 45 days—the temporary Shackleton Glacier camp about 300 miles from the South Pole in the Transantarctic Mountains.

Each day, the paleontologists loaded all of their safety gear to take with them in case bad weather rolled in. Two weather forecasters in the camp kept an eye on any approaching weather that might impact the team’s ability to get in and out in the field safely. They also had a mountaineer accompanying them for safety.

The only way to reach the mountainsides where they were working was by helicopter.

It’s “kind of like catching an Uber,” added Whitney. “Some days were longer, some shorter, dependent on availability of helicopters that day and the weather."

In addition to the weather, light conditions play an important role in spotting fossils.

“We’re working on the mountainsides—the tips of mountain sticking through the glacier,” Sidor said. “We use our knowledge of the geology and sedimentology to understand where fossils are likely to be found.”

They focused their efforts on the Fremouw Formation, a rock formation that is about 250–230 million years old.  

“We end up using rock saws to excavate fossils because hammers would take too much time,” said Sidor.

“After we’ve cut out and chiseled out all of this rock, we put a plaster jacket on top which is an interesting thing to do in Antarctica, because it requires putting your hand in water, so you’re freezing your hand to make the jacket,” said Whitney.

The Shackleton Glacier area was previously explored by paleontologists only three other times, in 1970–71, 1977–78 and 1995–96.

“I was worried that it might have been picked over [by the previous teams],” said Sidor. Thankfully that wasn’t the case.

The work is just getting started back at the Burke Museum now that the fossils arrived.

“Antarctica provides our only window into what happened to life at high latitudes after the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, and so I’m excited to be back at the Burke and get the lab work started,” said Sidor.

Fossils collected in Antarctica fall under the Antarctic Treaty, of which the United States is a signatory. This means that scientific observations and research must be made freely available. The fossils will be cared for in the Burke Museum collection, but they will be accessible to any visiting researcher.

See Antarctic fossils

Some of the Antarctic fossils collected on this expedition will be on display in the Burke Museum’s Testing, Testing 1-2-3: Work in Progress exhibit before we begin the process of preparing them for research. Plan your visit.

Visitors can learn more about the fossils during the Burke’s monthly Fossil Friday event on May 25 from 12 – 4 pm. 

In addition, several Antarctic fossils that were collected on previous expeditions will be on display in the new Burke Museum which opens in the fall of 2019.

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The Burke Museum is the Washington State Museum of Natural History and Culture. The Burke is an active research museum that cares for 16 million geology, biology and cultural objects from Washington state and around the world, preserving natural and cultural history and generating new discoveries.

Founded in 1885 and designated the State Museum in 1899, the Burke Museum is the oldest public museum in Washington. The Burke Museum is located on the University of Washington campus, at the corner of NE 45th St. and 17th Ave. NE. Hours are 10 am to 5 pm daily, and until 8 pm on first Thursdays. Admission: $10 general, $8 senior, $7.50 student/ youth. Admission is free to children four and under, Burke members, UW students, faculty, and staff. Admission is free to the public on the first Thursday of each month. UW parking fees are $3 up to 4 hours or $15 all day on weekdays, $5 flat fee on Saturdays before noon, and free parking after noon on Saturdays and all-day Sundays. Call 206.543.5590 or visit The Burke Museum is an American Alliance of Museums-accredited museum and a Smithsonian Affiliate.

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