SMU Earth Sciences, Antarctica

Earth Sciences master’s student Chris Strganac, doctoral student Yosuke Nishida and Professor Louis Jacobs are part of a team traveling to Antarctica to discover 120 million-year-old mammal fossils from Livingston Island and other places around the Antarctic Peninsula.
They hope to link the evolutionary history of mammals across South America to Africa and Australia through ancient Antarctica when climates were warmer. So far in their journey, as chronicled by Chris, they have found ancient plants, but mammal remains have been elusive. They are still looking…

Hello, Atlantic Ocean

As we leave the icebergs and penguins behind, we plan ahead for the Drake Passage. We expect to fasten everything (including our stomachs), considering last time was an average experience. We wait for the rough waves, the swaying, the sleepless nights – but it never comes.

We write this as the sea surface temperatures have risen from the near-freezing waters of the Drake Passage to over 10 degrees Celsius – we’re in the Atlantic Ocean. We had the mythical calm “Drake Lake” experience.

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Sharing treats in Esperanza

Chris%20-%20photo6.jpgThe remainder of the stops in Antarctica would be for Team Barbeau. These sites were around Esperanza, a year-round Argentine settlement on the Antarctic Peninsula. The first day we arrived many of us on the LMG went ashore for a tour of the base, while many families from Esperanza went to the LMG for a tour of the ship.

As we left the town of Esperanza, the families returned – their arms full of cookies, candies, and chips from the ship, smiles on their faces. We heard the kids hadn’t had yogurt in six months.

Chris-photo2.jpgThe following day Chris joined Team Barbeau to hike up Mount Flora. Mount Flora gets its name (we presume) from the Jurassic plant fossils on the mountain. Around Esperanza and Mount Flora, thousands of Adelie penguins cover the landscape, squawking, “porpoising” in the water and waddling up to greet us. A couple penguins look confused as they jump into a Zodiac.

Leaving Esperanza, the thought strikes us that the winter in Dallas we will feel in a week will be much warmer than the summer we had this past month in Antarctica.

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On to Seymour Island

Chris-photo4.jpgThe weather seemed to get clearer and nicer as we left Livingston Island. As we approached Seymour Island, the increasing ice in the sea slowed the LMG’s progress, but the weather still seemed fair.

Seymour Island is just east of James Ross Island in the Weddell Sea and is nearly surrounded by sea ice for most of the year.

Unlike Livingston Island, the fossil-bearing rocks record younger times on Earth, just before the K-T boundary at 65 million years ago to the opening of the Drake Passage between 40 million and 30 million years ago.

Prior field work on Seymour has yielded collections and publications on mammal fossils from this island. These mammals were preserved in offshore sediments, not the typical place you would find terrestrial mammals. We realize finding a mammal fossil will take work and much luck.

Strong winds and snow
We reached Seymour Island the afternoon of December 11. Most of Seymour Island’s coast was bound by sea ice, making landing possible only on the northern coast.

We approached Seymour by Zodiac with strong headwinds blowing in our faces (of course!). These winds send subfreezing water, thanks to high salinity, in our face with each splash. It didn’t take long for our cheeks to feel numb. As we reached the island, the winds became stronger, and the haze turned to snow. After our landing we embarked on a 3-mile hike to find the mammal sites.

The rock exposures, once bare when we were in the Zodiacs, quickly were being covered by snow. As we hiked, the weather seemed to get worse. After a mile or so we stopped to prospect for fossils. Despite the weather and snow cover, this was the best opportunity to find fossils thus far, and we did find fossil bones.

Chris%20-photo7.jpgFossils! …
Chris Denker found a fossil toe bone within minutes of our stop. At first, we thought Chris had found a mammal bone. After a few more bones were recovered, we realized the fossils were not from mammals, but very large penguins. Bird bones typically are hollow, but penguins, being land and sea bound, do not have hollow bones.

After a few hours of collecting and pretty poor weather conditions, we headed back. A mummified crab eater seal was testimony to the typically dry and harsh conditions.

The next few days the weather improved. We had sunny days … days in which the burns on some were good testament to the hole in the ozone layer. The scenery around us included completely ice-choked seas to James Ross Island, beautiful cirrus clouds and the Antarctic Peninsula mountains off in the distance. After a climb up, the bright-orange LMG looked bite-size to the floating ice around.

.. Or penguin bones and shells
Each day, we left the LMG by Zodiac and hiked 3 miles to potential sites (where mammals had been found by prior expeditions). A troop of Adelie penguins would greet us on the return to the shore after the hard day. Each day we returned to the LMG with more penguin bones that we tried (and hoped) to see as mammal bones.

Chris-photo5.jpgWe had only a few days of field work left and no mammal bones to show yet. Surface prospecting was complicated on Seymour – not by snow as on Livingston, but by the tremendous volume of broken mollusk and bivalve shells eroding out. With each step on Seymour we saw numerous bone-looking shell fragments. We needed to be able to reduce the amount of shells, which we did by screen washing.

On our last day we collected 15 large sample bags of matrix. After washing the matrix through screens (and dried in the sediment dry sauna on the LMG), these will be shipped to SMU. We will slowly look through the matrix, grain by grain, with the aid of microscopes, for rodent-sized mammal bones and teeth. The discovery of ancient mammals in Antarctica may be done at SMU.

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Fur seals, but no fossils

The next morning we set off via Zodiac in search of an oyster bed on the northwestern portion of Byers Peninsula. While oysters indicate a marine setting, they are found in shallow waters, which have potential for terrestrial mammals.

We arrive at Rays Peninsula to an interesting smell … Antarctic Fur seals. These are quite different from true seals in that they can use their front legs to walk semi-upright, and they have external ears.

We hike about a kilometer in search of the oyster beds over some fairly steep terrain. No avail … again snow cover has not been nice. The views, however, are spectacular.

We have been on the windward side of the Antarctic Peninsula. In a few days, we will be on the leeward and, hopefully, drier and more ice-free side.

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Fossil hunting in Antarctica

Byers Peninsula was selected because it is ice-free, has sedimentary rocks that record a time when Antarctica was connected to Africa and South America (120 million years ago), and there are known plant fossils.

Mammal fossils are not known from this time in Antarctica, and the discovery of mammal fossils would reveal important clues to mammalian evolution.

The sedimentary rocks are derived largely by volcanism (volcaniclastic sediments), and volcaniclastic strata are highly variable. Despite the fact that no prior fieldwork recovered fossil vertebrates and that bone and plant usually require different environments to preserve as fossils, the variability of sediments has potential for preserving fossil bone. We aim to find it.

Beautiful weather greets us on the day we set to leave for Byers Peninsula. This part of the island, the largest permanent ice-free portion of the island, is, in fact, covered almost completely in snow. (One of the exposed rock formations is Cerro Negro, visible in the background of the photo. Cerro Negro is an igneous intrusion and unfortunately unfit for fossil preservation.)

Camping in Antarctica
Ten Zodiac trips were needed to bring our camping, field and personal gear to the island. With the aid of Team Barbeau, the assembly of the Scott tents and weatherport takes a couple of hours. Team Barbeau departs, and we take a few field team photos of “before.” After the photos, the first snowstorm hits us. The winds are high enough that it snows inside the weatherport. If it weren’t for Team Barbeau, we would still be setting up camp. We are very grateful for their help.

An important part of any camping is how to use the restroom, especially when leaving little to no impact. The climate is cold and near freezing, so if we buried our waste, we would preserve it. The nearby waters are not heavily trafficked, and we released the waste in the ocean. We used biodegradable bags, bio-bags, which dissolve in water (of course in the privacy of an additional Scott tent.) A red flag outside this Scott tent warns others not to enter. It’s not a good idea to pee in the bio-bag, as the bags dissolve very quickly.

Elephant seal fun
The ability to work on Livingston Island requires special permits, as the island serves as the mating grounds for Elephant seals. Elephant seals, we have learned, are quite interesting creatures. The young seals are cute; the adult males, with an enlarged nose giving them their name, are not so cute. It’s quite a metamorphosis that must take place.

Elephant seals make a variety of sounds. Some of them sound like burps that would make Homer Simpson blush, and some sounds are like hoots and hollers of a lively party down the beach. They are not aggressive, and the young are curious. The second day, we had a young elephant seal come up to the door of the weatherport and play with the handle straps of a walking pole. Several other young slept in the snow sleds. The third day we had a dozen young elephant seals, and the camp was beginning to look like a seal nursery.

The only real harm Elephant seals do is to roll around and crush our gear, or break a guideline keeping a tent up. When they move on land they look like giant slugs, since their legs have been modified to flippers and tailfins. We imagine they are more graceful in water.

The weather challenge
It was obvious from the beginning that a major obstacle to finding fossils would be the snow cover on the Byers Peninsula rocks. We have maps of the rock types on the surface, but snow covers at least 90 percent of them. Our plan was to prospect as much of the exposed rock as possible. If there were mammal fossils, the teeth and bones would not be larger than a few millimeters.

The weather provides other limitations. Good weather could and did change fast, so we did not stray more than a few kilometers from camp. In good weather, the temperature did not stray much from zero; there were winds, but no snow. Dry clothes and multiple layers were essential.

A few days into the trip, we experienced a snowstorm and the weather that seemed worthy and inviting enough for the Gentoo, Adelie and Chinstrap penguins that were now onshore. If it hadn’t occurred to us before, we certainly then realized, this is Antarctica.

When not out in the field and heated through physical exertion, we kept warm by making soups from scratch or “fruit miasma,” a concoction of heated fruits, butter, and brown sugar. We had plenty of Clementine oranges, apples and butter.

We learned, by experience, the definition of “post-holing.” Post holing is the act of leaving foot/leg prints after sinking into uncompacted snow. Good post-holes would come up to the waist. A one-mile walk on flat terrain could feel like three miles of climbing.

Rock hunting
On good-weather days, we would leave for day trips to examine the rocks. We found beautiful impressions of plant leaves, most notably ferns and angiosperms (flowering plants). Ferns are common in stressed environments, as in areas that had been demolished in volcanic ash flows. Angiosperms were not as abundant 120 million years ago.

After several days with no sign of fossil bones or teeth, we collected some rocks that might be broken down later. The resulting matrix may be examined under a microscope for teeth.

After day 8, we had covered the potential fossil-bearing outcrops close to the camp. The snow had melted some, and a few of the team members found hidden melt water as they post-holed through snow and ice. Luckily we were close to camp, and they could change into dry clothes. We dared not venture much further, as the dangers of hypothermia would be realized if we were far from camp.

We realized that the utility of working out of this camp on this part of Livingston Island was coming to an end. Compounded with the desire for a shower, a shave, and warmth (not to mention Bobby’s cooking), we were delighted to hear that we could be picked up in two days by the LMG. As an unexpected bonus, we now have a chance to examine 55 million- to 33 million-year-old rocks on Seymour Island, on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Team Barbeau once again helped us take down our camp and load the Zodiacs. It was disorienting, yet comforting, to feel the familiar “dock rock” on the LMG.

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Stretching our legs on Hurd Peninsula

Our ship, the Lawrence M. Gould, is assisting another research project, led by Dave Barbeau, a geology professor from the University of South Carolina, which is examining the time and nature of the opening of the Drake Passage. The first stop of the LMG is Hurd Peninsula for Barbeau’s team. We decide to take advantage of the stop and get off the ship for a few hours.

The LMG is too large to dock on a beach, and we are transported to land by Zodiac-style boats. Getting in the boats from the LMG is a challenge as the Zodiac and LMG are moving up and down (from ocean waves) at different tempos. It involves timing and probably some luck. Rubbing the statue’s toe back in Punta Arena probably helped some, too.

Meeting the wildlife
On the beach, we see Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins, Elephant and Weddell seals, and Antarctic tourists – a population the LMG crew says is on the rise.

A large Elephant seal awaits us, asleep on the beach next to our landing. Adult male Elephant seals can get as large as 10,000 lbs. This one is much smaller, but still large enough and intimidating to the North American landlubbers. We walk past, wary and unsure of what to expect. Are they territorial? Aggressive? Chris Denker, our camp manager and “guide,” tells us no. He was right, the seal looked at us uninterested and went back to sleep.

After some gawking and photographs, we make our way to a colony of Gentoo penguins. Some opportunistic Skuas seem interested in the nesting penguins. The penguins are successful in defending their eggs … for the moment.

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Journey to Livingston Island

Our trip from Punta Arenas begins in the Strait of Magellan, then south across the Drake Passage to the South Shetland Islands. The Lawrence M. Gould has a staff that works very hard, including an excellent chef. Bobby, the chef (who turned down an offer to cook for rapper P. Diddy), serves excellent food, good enough that we hope the food we ate will wear off soon.

This voyage would take us to places we have never been, and we are excited by the prospect of seeing the wildlife. The first animals we saw were Magellanic penguins, Commerson’s dolphins and whales in the Strait. The gentle rocking of the ship was a new experience for some of us, and fortunately, most of us did not need sea sickness medication. Then we entered the Drake Passage.

Rough seas
The Drake Passage is the ocean channel between Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic Peninsula. This ocean channel opened 33 million to 40 million years ago, and Antarctica has been covered in ice since. The ship’s crew warned of possible rough seas, but it is one thing to hear the words “rough seas,” and it is another thing to feel rough seas.

Sleeping, walking, eating … living was difficult in the Drake Passage. The ship seemed to tilt 30 degrees at times … probably an exaggeration, but it did cause the mattress to shift from one side of the bed to the other. Add a few books falling, a loose chapstick in the cabinet rolling back and forth … back and forth … back and forth … one couldn’t wait to get to land, just to sleep. Apparently this was an average Drake experience.

Land!
On the morning of November 25, icebergs were in the water, and King George Island was our first sight of land in several days. We spent the remainder of the day traveling south along the South Shetland Islands to Livingston Island. The crux of the trip will be spent on day trips to permanent ice-free locations on Livingston Island and adjacent islands, and a 14-day camp on Byers Peninsula on Livingston.

Our first stop, Point Williams on the north end of the island, was cancelled as the scouting trip reports complete snow cover. We hope this is not the trend.

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Gearing up for the cold

In Punta Arenas, John Evans of Raytheon Polar Services, the logistics company that would aid our venture, met us. He took us to our hotel, gave us a quick tour of Punta Arenas, and led us to the docks where the Lawrence M. Gould, an Antarctic research vessel and our transportation to Antarctica, awaited.

Our good-luck toe
Punta Arenas is located on the Strait of Magellan near the southern tip of the South American continent (Tierra del Fuego is farther south but does not connect to South America). During our tour, Evans took us by the statue of Magellan. Below Magellan, there is a statue depicting a native. The native is barefoot, and his big toe is noticeably the most polished piece of the statue. Evans tells us of a local maritime superstition in which sailors would rub this toe for good fortune when traveling across the Drake Passage. We all rubbed the toe.

The next day we received our information security awareness training. It seems identity theft affects even penguins. Raytheon Polar outfits the team with clothing and gear for extreme conditions. The amount of warm clothes suggests the weather may get cold, but to us Texans, cold weather seems an intangible.

Sleeping tight
An integral pre-expedition step was to set up our tents. Scott tents would serve as our sleeping tents (the yellow tents in the photo are Scott tents), and a weatherport, resembling a miniature airplane hangar, would be our cooking tent.

A striking feature of Scott tents is the door, which does not open with flaps or zippers like basic camping tents, but as a circular tube of canvas that cinches closed. The genius in the design is that it keeps snow, rain, and wind out. We learn soon that it prevents even us from entering and leaving.

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Dallas to Punta Arenas via Santiago

We (Louis, Yosuke and Chris) left Dallas in the late afternoon to Punta Arenas.

During the 10-hour flight to Santiago, the Atacama Desert of Chile was in view. Slow latitudinal drift of South America, ocean circulation off the coast, the rain shadow, and strong winds have allowed the Atacama Desert to persist for over 150 million years. Some of the landscapes haven’t changed much in 20 million years. Unfortunately, some of us were on the wrong side of the plane (Chris and Yosuke), or asleep during this part of the flight (Chris).

Upon arrival in Santiago, we were greeted by the smiles of the other team members. We made our connection to Punta Arenas despite the short layover and going through customs.

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