Kansas fossil hunters brave Antarctica in search of rare plants

December is summer in Antarctica, but on the mountaintops where a team of scientists are studying plants from one of the hottest periods in Earth’s history, daily high temperatures average around minus 30 degrees.

You read correctly. Scientists, many from the University of Kansas, are collecting evidence of hot weather plants in a climate so cold it wouldn’t register on a household thermometer.

This is because Antarctica is home to some of the world’s largest plant fossil deposits dating from the Permian and Triassic periods. Temperatures during the Permian were much colder than during the Triassic, so plants that adapted through the mass extinction in between could hold clues to how life survives climate change, said Carla Harper, National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Paleobotany at KU.

“That’s exactly what we’re going through today,” she said. “If we can see how these plants have adapted, it could give us clues as to how plants on earth, in general, are adapting to climate change.”

Antarctica may seem like a miserable place to look for rocks, but Harper, who collected fossils in Antarctica on a similar trip in 2014 and stayed in Kansas this year, said she wasn’t d ‘OK. She described the trip as “a blast” and “a dream”.

“Loved it and wish I could go back,” she said, noting that the trip needs some tweaking. “It’s obviously winter here, but then you get to New Zealand where it’s summer and you’re wearing shorts. Then it’s off to Antarctica where it’s worse than winter. in its own right. That’s a lot.”

At Shackleton’s team base camp, temperatures are more tolerable 10 to 20 degrees, Harper said. It’s no warmer than a balmy 35 degrees at McMurdo Station, where the helicopters and equipment are stored.

“It’s considered warmer,” Harper said of Shackleton’s camp, built in a valley.

Back to the rocks

The team has been in Antarctica since November and will return mid-January. Led by Rudolph “Rudy” Serbet, collections manager in paleobotany at KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, the group includes researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. They collected more than 3,000 pounds of material for analysis this spring, Harper said. Many of these fossils could be new species.

“(Serbet) was super excited, because in one place they found a lot of plants that they had never seen before,” she said. “It’s quite phenomenal. This is one of the best parts of our job: you can make new discoveries.

Although the team collected many samples, finding fossils in the coveted Permian/Triassic boundary is difficult because these rocks are rare in most parts of the world, she said, but Antarctic deposits , especially around the receding Shackleton Glacier, remain intact. The continent also offers better compression fossils, which show the outline of the plant and a type of fossilized peat, such as fossilized wood, which gives scientists an understanding of the structure of the plant.

The samples will likely arrive at KU, the nation’s largest repository for Antarctic plant fossils, in April.