A Dinosaur Hunter Heads to Antarctica

Credit: Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project

When you look at Antarctica these days, you don’t think of much aside from penguins and footage of chunks of ice breaking off of it that have nothing to do with climate change. You might have even thought it’s been like that forever. But now, a recent expedition by an international group of paleontologists to the northern peninsula of the island continent revealed fossils of huge undersea reptiles you might have seen in Jurassic World and is helping reveal something else about the giant ice block. Not only was Antarctica once a lush, forest-filled landmass, but it was also home to plenty of dinosaurs 100 million years ago.

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Dr. Matthew Lamanna recently came back from doing five weeks of fieldwork with an international team of paleontologists on the Antarctic Peninsula James Ross Island. On this particular expedition, they came back with a whole heap of fossils, some of which are currently unidentified dinosaur remains, as well as plesiosaur and mosasaurus bones. If the mosasaurus sounds familiar to you, that’s because it was featured in 'Jurassic World' last year, in a scene where a whole shark was fed to the undersea creature.

Dr. Lamanna did want to stress that while plesiosaurs and mosasauruses aren’t dinosaurs and are more closely related to snakes and modern lizards, they were “big giant scary marine reptiles” nonetheless. But Lamanna also said that “absolutely dinosaurs lived on the Antarctic Peninsula 70 million years ago, and we have the fossils to prove it.” Among the fossils that have been found on the continent: skeletons of a small, plant-eating dinosaur called an ornithopod, remains of an armored dinosaur Lamanna described as looking like an “armadillo/crocodile hybrid” called an ankylosaurus, a partial skeleton of a raptor-like meat-eating dinosaur the size of an emu or ostrich, and even the tailbone of a long-necked plant eater known as a titanosaur.

Lamanna also said that during the end of the age of dinosaurs, “Antarctica was a much warmer place that hosted a really lush ecosystem. There were numerous species of plants, definitely a lot of land-living animals, oceans absolutely teeming with life, loaded with fishes and ancient invertebrates and giant marine reptiles.” The landmass had a climate that was more like the “Pacific Northwest, like Seattle or Oregon,” than the frozen mass that now comes to mind.

How was Antarctica, a place we know as a big ice cube, able to support dinosaur life 70 million years ago? According to Lamanna, Antarctica has been in more less the same place at the bottom of the world for hundreds of millions of years, although it was attached to Australia and connected either directly to South America, or at least had a land bridge connecting to it. Antarctica separated from Australia 30 to 40 million years ago, and it separated from South America 50 to 60 million years ago, so it's been a while. Once Antarctica was totally surrounded by ocean water, something called the Antarctic circumpolar current, formed, which Lamanna compared to “a giant insulator, keeping warm waters from the rest of the world away from” the continent. Still, before all that happened, Lamanna said that the fossil records and geological records show that “this was a place that was much, much warmer than today, was home to forests, a huge diversity of plants that supported a huge diversity of animals and oceans that supported marine creatures as well.”

Of course, Antarctica is a much different place now, although parts of it aren’t so different from what you might be used to. Since the expedition went to Antarctica in February and March, toward the end of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, temperatures there ranged from 20 to 50 degrees, reaching almost 60 on the warmest day of the trip. Lamanna compared the climate to “a Pittsburgh winter,” and also added, laughing, that the peninsula is “just about the wussiest part of Antarctica you can be in.” So if you’re planning a trip down there ever, just remember that’s the best time to go if you’re not looking to have a hard time.

As for Lamanna and his fellow paleontologists, the plan now is to ship the fossils back to the United States, where they’ll eventually be sent to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. From there, the fossils will be cleaned up and studied, and Lamanna believes the collection will “yield new scientific data for decades. It’s a large collection from a time and place we don’t know very much about what was living there at the time.” And if you want to keep up on every piece of Antarctic dinosaur news you can get, you can follow the Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project on their blog and on Twitter at @antarcticdinos.