Prehistoric Antarctic Bugs and Plants Discovered

Steven Stanek
for National Geographic News
August 5, 2008
Plants, insects, and other life-forms dating back 14 million years have been found on Antarctica, a new study says.

The specimens—some of which contain organic tissue—help paint a picture of a temperate Antarctica where glacial lakes were surrounded by trees and swarmed with buzzing blackflies.

Researchers found the freeze-dried remains of mosses, algae, small crustaceans, and beetles in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where glacial lakes once existed.

The site also contains a layer of potassium-rich volcanic ash, which can be precisely dated, allowing researchers to pinpoint for the first time how long ago the plants and animals lived.

"We have documented the timing and magnitude of the tremendous climate shift in Antarctica," said study co-author David Marchant, a professor of earth sciences at Boston University.

"The transition marks a shift from warm, temperate glaciers with patches of fringing [forest] to tundra to today's cold polar glacier, set within a barren polar desert."

Climate Boundary

The researchers determined the ash fell in the lake 14.07 million years ago. Other nearby ash deposits show that most liquid water in the area froze by 13.9 million years ago.

At some point during that 200,000-year interval—brief by geologic standards—the average summertime temperature plunged by about 14 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius), said Adam Lewis, a geoscientist at North Dakota State University and co-author of the report.

"There's a climate boundary, and it is between those two dates," Lewis said.

"Everybody knows that Antarctica used to hold life, but nobody has ever been able to put their finger on the point in time when that life got snuffed out by decreasing temperatures and growing ice sheets."

The summertime temperatures in the McMurdo Dry Valleys during the temperate period would have hovered around 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius)—31 degrees Fahrenheit (17 degrees Celsius) warmer than the summer averages of today.

No one knows exactly what caused the sudden change. Theories range from tectonic shifts that affected ocean circulation to decreasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The new findings—which add to evidence released last month that focused on the prehistoric Antarctic crustaceans at the site—will appear in today's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Striking Contrast

The discovery of the ancient plant and animal life provides a unique glimpse at a more hospitable Antarctica.

"The contrast couldn't be more striking. It's like comparing Patagonia [in southern South America] today with the surface of Mars," study co-author Marchant said. "To study these deposits is akin to strolling across the Dry Valleys 14.1 million years ago."

Experts have also compared the Antarctica of 14 million years ago to the present-day climate of the Tierra del Fuego mountains in South America, which have seasonally ice-free glacial lakes.

Lewis, of North Dakota State, said that, based on a study of pollen found in the lake deposit, there may have been southern beech trees similar to those that grow in South America, in New Zealand, and on the Australian island of Tasmania.

The lakes would have had thick mats of green moss, he said, and swarms of blackflies and other insects would have populated the region.

"It may be a pretty small group of plants and animals that were able to survive there. … It is right on the fringe," Lewis said. "It's entirely possible that we are looking at the last few survivors."

"Freeze Dried"

The newfound remains still contain organic tissue.

"You get this freeze-dried leaf and you put in water and it still unfurls, opening up as it rehydrates," Marchant said. "At that point it looks as fresh as a museum specimen."

The ability to artificially rehydrate the organisms suggests that they were never been naturally rehydrated. In other words, in 14 million years the site never warmed enough to thaw the specimens.

"It is one of the most dramatic and long-lasting changes that one can imagine," Marchant said. "I don't know of any other place on Earth where such an enduring change has been documented."

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