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Finding Frozen Fossils in Antarctica

By John Long

Antarctica throws up some challenges to paleaontologists attempting to excavate and return fossils that may tell us if tetrapods first evolved in Gondwana.

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On the eve of my third fossil-collecting expedition to Antarctica, which departs for McMurdo Station in December, I thought I’d reflect on the daily routines and hazards of working as a palaeontologist on the frozen continent.

My last expedition there was over the summer of 1991–92. I went with a New Zealand party, aided by US air logistics. We searched the mountains around the Darwin Glacier, then moved north to the Skeleton Névé, where earlier expeditions had recovered very well preserved Devonian fish fossils.

The trip was fraught with unexpected hazards, mostly because we traversed some 700 km of largely unexplored territory, using skidoos pulling Nansen sledges loaded with our camping gear, food and supplies. At times we found ourselves caught in the midst of crevasse fields, and had to slowly pace our way out using a crevasse probe to determine a safe path out of the immediate danger. Other times we were subjected to minor avalanches from the snow-laden cliffs above us, or near misses stepping over crevasses covered by thin ice bridges. Luckily we all survived.

Such exploits were also commonplace for the early heroic explorers on their first deep-field ventures into the remote heart of the continent. But we go there to explore areas and find fossils where few people ever get the chance to venture. This gives us access to extraordinarily rich...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.