DISCOVERY OF ANCIENT FOSSILIZED WOODLAND IN ANTARCTICA, DATING BACK 280 MILLION YEARS

Unearthed within the frozen expanse of Antarctica lies evidence of a bygone era—a 280-million-year-old fossilized forest. Contrary to its current icy visage, Antarctica once stood as a flourishing terrain during the primeval epoch of Gondwana, an immense landmass shaping Earth’s geography.

Recently unearthed intricate fossils from this era offer profound insights into the thriving flora and the potential trajectory of modern-day forests as they migrate northward in our progressively warming world.

Erik Gulbranson, a paleoecologist from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, sheds light on Antarctica’s role as a preserver of ecological history, encapsulating polar biomes over a staggering 400 million years—spanning the entirety of plant evolution.

FORESTED ANTARCTICA?

Confronting the current icy facade of Antarctica, it’s challenging to envision a landscape adorned with lush forests. In the pursuit of these fossilized relics, Gulbranson and his collaborators undertake daring expeditions, landing planes on snowfields, traversing glaciers, and braving bone-chilling winds. Yet, from approximately 400 million to 14 million years ago, this southern continent boasted a markedly different and verdant character.

An artistic depiction illustrating the appearance of the prehistoric woodland 385 million years in the past, crafted by Dr. Chris Berry, a collaborator in the research detailing the ancient tree fossils.

Despite warmer temperatures, vegetation in the low southern latitudes had to contend with perpetual darkness during winters and unending daylight in summers—a scenario reminiscent of today. This period witnessed the demise of up to 95% of Earth’s species, attributed to volcanic emissions of colossal greenhouse gases, elevating temperatures to unprecedented levels and acidifying the oceans.

Parallels with contemporary climate change are evident, notes Gulbranson, albeit less extreme but driven by analogous greenhouse gas dynamics.

A segment of a tree trunk, its base well-preserved, located at the Svalbard site (left), juxtaposed with an artistic rendition portraying the appearance of the ancient woodland 380 million years ago (right).

Before the end-Permian mass extinction, the Glossopteris genus dominated the southern polar forests. These colossal trees, ranging from 65 to 131 feet in height, with expansive leaves dwarfing a human forearm, painted the landscape below the 35th parallel south to the South Pole.

TRANSITIONS THROUGH TIME

During recent fossil-hunting expeditions in Antarctica, Gulbranson and his team stumbled upon the oldest recorded polar forest from the southern polar region. Though its precise age remains undetermined, it likely flourished around 280 million years ago before swift burial beneath volcanic ash, preserving it at the cellular level.

This Thanksgiving, Gulbranson’s team plans a return to Antarctica for further excavations at two sites containing fossils spanning periods before and after the Permian extinction.

Erik Gulbranson on site in Antarctica.

Post-extinction, the polar forests underwent transformation rather than disappearance. Glossopteris made way for a diverse mix of evergreen and deciduous trees, including relatives of contemporary gingkoes.

The precise causes behind these transitions remain elusive, notes Gulbranson, emphasizing the team’s research focus. Remarkably well-preserved in rock, the plant specimens yield amino acid building blocks, remnants of the trees’ proteins. Gulbranson’s expertise in geochemistry techniques aims to unravel how these trees adapted to the peculiar sunlight conditions of the southern latitudes and decipher the factors that led to the demise of Glossopteris.

Researchers have subsequently discovered additional proof of plant existence on the continent, exemplified by this fossilized fern found in the fossil collection of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

This season, equipped with helicopters for improved accessibility to rugged outcrops in the Transantarctic Mountains, the international team, comprising members from the United States, Germany, Argentina, Italy, and France, plans extended stays, combining mountaineering and fieldwork amidst the perpetual daylight of the Antarctic summer.

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