Thursday, May 31, 2018

Antarctica and Fossils

In which the blogger finds his world insisting, through a campaign involving press reports, a new museum exhibit, and postage stamps, that he pay attention to Antarctic fossils.

Perhaps I’m just experiencing that phenomenon where something comes to my attention and suddenly my world appears overpopulated with that something.  It seems that there is increasing attention among scientists and in the popular media to fossils from Antarctica.  Frankly, it’s not hard to see why collecting and studying such fossils might be an attractive venture for those pursing the fossils and somewhat newsworthy for the rest of us.  The very challenges of working in that unforgiving environment might draw the adventurous (maybe such explorers see themselves in the mold of John Bell Hatcher, one of my paleontological heroes and subject of a post on this blog).  Coping with the harsh climate certainly gives an exciting patina to news coverage of such efforts.  Clearly more important (I assume) to the scientists is what these fossils have to tell us about the extremely different environmental conditions (often warm and wet) that prevailed there while that geographic area was part of the supercontinent Gondwana and what that might teach us about climate change.  This scientific content might perhaps be of some interest to the layperson, but popular coverage could be coming simply from the spark of amazement that is felt when one realizes the contrast between what the environment was there then and what is now.  And that bit of understanding, in and of itself, is worth something.

A good example of this playing out is the extensive coverage in the popular press of the recent Antarctic expedition which recovered the fossilized remains of trees that date from about 260 million years ago, shortly before the massive extinction event marking the end of the Permian Period.  These fossils have the potential to reveal something about how these trees handled the alternating extremes of prolonged light and prolonged darkness that prevailed then and prevail now at the poles.

But what impresses me most about this story is how it spiraled out from local coverage of the involvement of two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee geologists in that effort (Matthew Wamser, UWM Geologists Uncover Antarctica’s Fossil Forests, UWM Report, November 13, 2017), to be the subject of some 75 news reports worldwide from such outlets as Science Daily, The National Geographic, CNN, the Independent newspaper (Britain), and the Indian Express newspaper (India).

And it’s surprising to me that all of this comes from a story about finds upon which the research is only just beginning and whose true scientific import isn’t really that obvious or proven.  Further, one assumes that peer-reviewed publications are some long time away.  Yes, the interest, at its core, may well stem from the surprise for many that Antarctica was, at one time, covered in green forests and inhabited by a wide range of animals.

So it is that that the timing of the Field Museum’s soon-to-open exhibit Antarctic Dinosaurs couldn’t be better, an event I only learned about in the past few days (perhaps it's a bit of that cosmic conspiracy to confront me with Antarctic fossils).  The museum introduces this exhibit in not unexpectedly breathless terms:
Though Antarctica today can be a forbidding land of snow and ice, 200 million years ago it was a wooded, lush habitat where dinosaurs thrived. Opening in 2018, this new traveling exhibition embarks on the thrilling hunt for never-before-seen fossils and sheds new light on our planet’s ever-changing climate and geology.
Following the footsteps of early explorers and scientists today, witness the persistent challenges and extreme conditions of harrowing expeditions to the “Lost Continent.”
The exhibit, which opens at the Field in Chicago on June 15, 2018 and runs through January 6, 2019, takes the visitor on a tour.  (The description which follows relies on documents posted on the Field’s website.)  At the outset, the exhibit will offer the visitor a look at the conditions in the Antarctic now and the equipment needed to survive, comparing that gear to what was used by early explorers like Robert Falcon Scott.  Some of the first fossils found in the Antarctic will be on display (I’ve posted on Scott and his collecting of fossils in the face of death).  The visitor will then explore the geological forces that created the continent and visit a reconstructed Antarctic forest.  Next, the way fossils are hunted and collected in the current climate will be on display.  At that point, the visitor will encounter what is, I assume, the highlight of the exhibit, the world of Antarctic dinosaurs which will come to life through fossils and reconstructions.  The last two stops within the exhibit for the visitor will reveal how and why the continent’s climate changed to what it is now, and suggest lessons we might learn from those changes.

(After it closes at the Field on January 6, 2019, the exhibit takes to the road; its first stop will be at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County for a stay from June 1, 2019 through January 5, 2020.)

As I suggested in a recent post, I’ve revived a past interest in philately with some emphasis on the appearance of fossils on stamp issues.  That effort has continued apace (with invaluable help from where things philatelic and paleontological meet), and here in this endeavor the connection between Antarctica and the fossil evidence of past richness of flora and fauna on this continent has been inescapable, too.  Indeed, I think that among the most attractive stamps featuring scientifically accurate images of fossils that have ever been issued are those from the British Antarctic Territory (BAT), an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom.  The BAT consists of a wedged shaped slice of the continent with its apex at the pole and extending out toward South America.  (A small curiosity, the area encompassed by the BAT does not include Scott’s route to the pole in 1911-1912.)  Here is a map of the BAT (it is available from Wikimedia Commons and licensed under the Open Government License v1.0).

BAT stamps are primarily printed for the stamp collecting trade, an important source of revenue for the territory.  The BAT stamps featuring fossils from the Antarctic that were printed in 1990, 1991, and 2008 are shown below.  In addition, I offer two close-ups, one of a 1991 issue showing an Antarctic forest (featuring Southern Beeches - a cross-section of a fossil Nothofagus trunk is shown on the stamp) during the Cretaceous Period, and the other of a 1990 stamp showing a fossil leaf from a Glossopteris tree, which dominated the Antarctic forest before the End-Permian Extinction wiped it out.

These stamps are quite stunning.

I’m not sure at this point what in the way of Antarctic fossils the future has in store for me (I’m sure the powers that be won’t quit their campaign at this point).  Perhaps I should preempt them and take a trip to the Field Museum this summer.

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