Antarctic prehistory facts

Image of Gondwana progressively becoming the continents we know today
Pictorial representation of Gondwana breaking up

Until 55 million years ago, the history of life on Antarctica was very similar to that on other southern continents, especially Australia. The fossil record is very similar with abundant plants and animals, including those that lived on land. There are abundant plant fossils in many areas of Antarctica from this period.

Perhaps the historically most significant evidence of earlier vegetation, well preserved in Antarctica, is the leaf form Glossopteris which was at the heart of the concept of Gondwana, an hypothesis first proposed to explain the widespread distribution of glacial rocks and Glossopteris. When Robert Falcon Scott’s party was found dead in its tent on the way back from the South Pole, specimens of Glossopteris from the Beardmore Glacier region were found with them. While they had jettisoned almost everything else on the way back, they recognised the immense scientific importance of Glossopteris and refused to leave the specimens behind. These are some 280–300 million years old.

There is a major dispute about when Antarctic vegetation died out. It is clear that a good vegetation cover, containing many elements that still exist in some southern hemisphere cold temperate rain forests such as Tasmania, New Zealand and southern South America, continued in Antarctica until about 35 million years ago. There are other tantalising pieces of evidence to suggest it continued until even much more recently, even as young as 2–3 million years ago.

Dinosaurs lived on Antarctica and are particularly well known from the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula although few have been described formally. They include ankylosaurs (the armoured dinosaurs), mosasaurs and plesiosaurs (both marine reptilian groups).

Seymour Island, just off the Antarctic Peninsula, is one of the most important fossil sites on earth. It contains a bewildering array of different fossils, representing a great array of different environments, and also includes one of the very few uninterrupted sections across the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary, the time when dinosaurs and many other life forms died out, probably due to meteorite or asteroid impact.

Abundant remains of the southern beech, Nothofagus (N. beardmorensis) have been found at 86°S, only 400 km from the South Pole. The age is contentious but may be as young as 2–3 million years, suggesting that the modern environment of Antarctica, with the large icesheet, may be a more recent development than was thought a few years ago. The leaves occur abundantly in lake sediments which are in turn under- and over-lain by glacial sediments. The leaves represent an autumn leaf-fall and are very similar, though larger than, the Tasmanian species Nothofagus gunnii also known as the Deciduous Beech or Tanglefoot. Study of the wood suggests that the plant grew as a straggly shrub similar in growth form to the Arctic willow (Salix arctica).

Marine Plain in the Vestfold Hills is another important locality which is yielding a great diversity of fossils from 4.5–4.1 million years ago. Perhaps the best known are the fossil dolphins and whales. About 5 or 6 species are known but only two dolphins have been studied in detail. The dolphins are new to science and are very different from modern dolphins. They are quite common and occur as almost complete skeletons as if they died and sank gently into the mud without being disturbed by predators or rough sea conditions. They died in an embayment which was less than 40 metres deep. They consist of two species, one about 4.5 m long and the other about 8–9 m long. They are unusual in lacking teeth, and one, in being so large for a dolphin. They may have consumed squid by sucking them into their very long, slim jaws and locating them by echo-location devices. Other species of cetaceans are represented by fragments only.

An interesting fossil from Marine Plain is a palinurid crustacean, a small lobster. This family includes the modern lobsters of commerce around Australia. The group is now extinct from the Antarctic. The palinurids have another interesting aspect. They belong formally to the Family Palinuridae which includes Palinurus, Panulirus, and Linuparus. These names are all anagrams of each other and suggest a sense of humour among the group of biologists that named them. Palinurus in the ancient world, was the navigator in Virgil's Aeneid.

Marine Plain fossils occur where they died, in contrast with most other localities where fossils of the age are known and this is where the value of the deposit will eventually be documented.

It is clear that a major extinction event occurred around Antarctica in the period 2–3 million years ago, but it is now becoming evident that it may be part of a global extinction event that is now being documented. The cause is debated but one strong contributor probably was the closure of the Isthmus of Panama, which caused the flow of water from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean to stop, thus causing the Gulf Stream and northern hemisphere glaciation to begin. Another contributor may have been the Himalayas which were growing at the time and influenced the circulation of the atmosphere in the northern hemisphere.

How do we work out the story of Antarctic fossil life when there is so little outcrop and so few workers in the field? Modern biochemical methods are allowing us to work out the general trend of evolution, even in some groups which do not leave fossils. Two groups where these techniques have been particularly successful are in the Euphausiacea (including Antarctic krill such as Euphausia superba) and the Antarctic fish that belong to the Notothenioidea. Both groups have no fossil record. For the Euphausiacea this is true globally and yet it constitutes one of the world's great biomass features.

One key approach is to examine DNA from mitochondria in modern cells. This DNA is believed to be almost entirely maternal in origin and thus not part of the reproduction process involving nuclear DNA. Mitochondrial DNA accumulates mutations at a rate that is known roughly. The difference in mitochondrial DNA in two similar organisms is a function of the time since they evolved from a common ancestor. Biochemical techniques now allow estimates of this time to be made and a rough evolutionary tree to be established. The evolution of krill and fish is now roughly worked out and the times of change coincide quite well with oceanographic events that are identifiable in the geological record.

This page was last modified on 17 June 2002.