Scientists who search for Antarctic dinosaurs

Antarctica is 98 percent covered in ice. It seems an unlikely place for dinosaurs to thrive. But it was much warmer 200 million years ago.

William Hammer is a paleontologist at Augustana College in Illinois.┬áIn 1990, he and his team found half a skeleton of a meat-eating dinosaur — the first dinosaur found on the continent of Antarctica. They named it Cryolophosaurus, which means frozen crested reptile — frozen since it was 25 degrees below zero Celsius at the site where they found it, in the middle of the Antarctic summer.

To get to this remote site, Hammer’s team first flies to New Zealand. Then they board a ski plane for the trip to McMurdo Station — an outpost on the Antarctic coast.

William Hammer: We go through training at McMurdo station before we go out. You go through survival training. They teach you how to climb up and down ropes to get in and out of crevasses, basic first aid, cold weather survival, how to make a shelter if your tent blows down, out of snow or ice or whatever. Then we go out and test out all our equipment that we’re going to use in the field to make sure nothing’s missing, everything works.

Antarctica seems an unlikely place for dinosaurs. But, 200 million years ago, the continent was warmer than today. Next month, William Hammer will return to Antarctica as summer returns — to look for more dinosaur remains among the rocks and ice.

With ninety-eight percent of its area covered in ice, Antarctica seems an unlikely place for dinosaurs to thrive.

But not 200 million years ago. Back then, says Dr. William Hammer, a paleontologist who looks for dinosaurs in Antarctica, the continent was significantly warmer and friendlier to dinosaurs than it is today.

Hammer says, “We’re looking at things at a time when Antarctica had an entirely different climate. It wasn’t at the South Pole. That’s really a record of about as extreme a climate change as you can get. To have a place where you have lush vegetation and all these reptiles living to a place that now is in the summer is 25 below zero and in the winter is 120 below zero.”

In December 1990, Hammer and his team discovered a new dinosaur they named Cryolophosaurus — on Mt. Kirkpatrick — a remote peak located about 800 kilometers — or 500 miles — from the Antarctic coast. Excavation continued into January of 1991. It was the first dinosaur ever found on the Antarctic continent. There were a couple of earlier dinosaur discoveries made on islands off the Antarctic coast. Hammer’s team also found remains of a Prosauropod, a Pterosaur and several other meat-eating dinosaurs. Although new dinosaur species are found all over the globe, finding Cryolophosaurus on this frozen continent was particularly revealing.

Hammer says, “These dinosaurs from Antarctica are very old and are the oldest ones from this very successful lineage of dinosaurs. And this is the oldest member of this lineage it belongs to by 30 or 40 million years. So it tells us that Antarctica was the center of dinosaur evolution very early on in the Mesozoic.”

Dr. Hammer talks about his work in Antarctica in 1990 -1991, when he discovered Cryolophosaurus:

“We actually discovered the first Jurassic dinosaur in Antarctica in ’90, ’91. We went down in late November of ’90 and we were collecting until January of ’91. We had a place, Mt. Kirkpatrick, which is an elevation of about 12 and a half thousand feet about sea level and it was about 400 miles, 600 km, from the geographic south pole, near the Beardmore glacier.

“We found… about half of this skeleton of a new, meat-eating dinosaur we named Cryolophosaurus. It means frozen crested reptile or lizard because it has a weird display-crest on its head that kind of swings forward. It was used for visual recognition. So that’s where the word crest comes from. Frozen, of course is from the fact that it was 25 below zero at that site in the middle of summer when we collected it. It wasn’t frozen when it lived there but it’s frozen now. We couldn’t name it Antarctisaurus because someone already named a South American dinosaur Antarctisaurus because they figured it lived in Antarctica and we’d never find any there. So there’s an Antarctisaurus from South America.

“So we found that and then we found parts of another dinosaur, a plant-eating dinosaur, called a Prosauropod, which is a Padasaurus, Brontosaurus, those are the big Sauropods. These are older than some of the North American well-known ones. They are about 200 million years old, from early in the Jurassic period, so it’s pretty early in the history of dinosaurs.

“And then we found part of a flying reptile, a pterosaur, and we found some broken teeth from some small meat-eating dinosaurs that were apparently scavenging the dead carcass of the larger meat-eater. And then we found parts of a little animal called a Synapsid, which is a group — it’s not a group of dinosaurs, it’s a group of reptiles mammals evolved from. So they’re mammal-like reptiles.

“Other seasons we’ve been down there we’ve found things at other places but they aren’t dinosaurs. They’re older. We’ve found things from the early part and middle part of the Triassic period. The early part is 245 million years and the middle part is 225 and dinosaurs first appear 210 or 215 million years ago. So both of those faunas are older and didn’t have dinosaurs. They had different kinds of reptiles. A lot of the Synapsids, the mammal-like reptiles, were found in those localities.”

Dr. Hammer, on preparing for and embarking on a research expedition to Antarctica:

“It usually takes three to five years. This one is longer because we were supposed to go a couple of years ago. See, the National Science Foundation Antarctic Program has a logistic base on an island on the coast. And they fly us in on these C-130, LC-130 planes with skis, and they have six or seven of these planes… They have a logistic system set up on this island and they can support X number of research projects in different places across the continent.

“Well, for where we go we need helicopters 500 miles from the coast. So not only does it take the plane flights to get us in there, the planes have to lay fuel for the helicopters and they have to fly supplies in to a temporary helicopter support camp. So it takes quite a number of these LC-130 ski plane flights to run the kind of camp we’re going to be working out of. And for the last six or seven years they’ve been rebuilding a research station at the South Pole. So that’s drained all the ski-plane time — the LC-130 time — away from major remote projects because they’ve been using the planes to fly equipment, construction people into the South Pole and back. So this thing was funded and it was approved for a couple of years ago, then it didn’t go because of logistics, but now it’s going again. It doesn’t always take 7 years to plan it but sometimes it takes it to pull it off if the logistics support isn’t available.

“We fly from here commercially to Christchurch, New Zealand. There is an Antarctic center in Christchurch that’s run by the National Science Foundation. We get clothing and equipment there in NZ. Then we get on a ski plane there and fly about 2500 miles — 8 hours, maybe 10, depends on the wind –down to this island off the coast of Antarctica, where McMurdo station is. There we get our equipment, field training and survival training. And then we’re another 500 miles south, inland from there, 500 miles from this base on the coast, out in the Transantarctic Mountains. ”

Dr. Hammer on digging for dinosaurs in Antarctic weather conditions:

“Well, it presents its challenges because of the weather. Actually we can’t use some of the methods we’d normally use in warmer climates, like plaster jacketing is real difficult because plaster freezes before it sets. So we get around that in other ways. We stabilize the bones pretty well with glues and stuff before we take them out so we don’t have to jacket them.

“Sometimes we have trouble with the equipment because we use gasoline-powered hammers and drills and they don’t like to start very well at 25 below zero. But probably the worst thing is taking field notes because you have to take your gloves off. And notes are critical in the field… you have to know what came from where and how it all goes back together and also the depositional settings so you can recreate how it came to be there, the taphonomy of the place… We have contact gloves, which are real thin gloves so that if you touch any metal you don’t stick to it. So you can write with the contact gloves. You jot things down, put your gloves back on. On and off all the time.

“We live in tents, do our own cooking on Coleman stoves in tents. So we don’t have sandstorms — we have white outs and high wind conditions, which are the worst things for us, where it gets so windy you can’t work and you can’t see. Everything’s blowing around.”

Dr. Hammer on the significance of the research he’s done in Antarctica:

“Antarctica is an interesting place because we don’t know very much about its history compared to other continents because only 2% of it’s exposed — 98% of it is covered in ice. So whatever glimpse we can get of that history is relatively important. We’re looking at things at a time when Antarctica had an entirely different climate, it wasn’t at the South Pole, that’s really a record about as extreme a climate change as you can get. To have a place where you have lush vegetation and all these reptiles living to a place that now is in the summer is 25 below zero and in the winter is 120 below zero.

“And so it’s interesting from that perspective. Its also interesting because some of the things we’re finding down there are very unique. These dinosaurs from Antarctica are very old and are the oldest ones from this very successful lineage of dinosaurs and this is the oldest member of this lineage it belongs to by 30 or 40 years. So it tells us that Antarctica was the center of dinosaur evolution very early on in the Mesozoic. So it fits together with what we know from all the other continents. We just don’t have anywhere near as much information. So what little we get is relatively important. We find a lot of dinosaurs in North America. So finding a new one here isn’t as big a deal as Antarctica where you only have a couple.”

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INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

WH: We actually discovered the first Jurassic dinosaur in Antarctica in ’90, ’91. We went down in late November of ’90 and we were collecting until January of ’91. We had a place, Mt. Kirkpatrick, which is an elevation of about 12 and a half thousand feet about sea level and it was about 400 miles, 600 km, from the geographic south pole, near the Beardmore glacier.

:51
We found a good part of this, about half of this skeleton of a new, meat-eating dinosaur we named Cryolophosaurus. It means frozen crested reptile or lizard because it has a weird display-crest on its head that kind of swings forward. It was used for visual recognition. So that’s where the word crest comes from. Frozen, of course is from the fact that it was 25 below zero at that site in the middle of summer when we collected it. It wasn’t frozen when it lived there but it’s frozen now.

We couldn’t name it Antarctisaurus because someone already named a South American dinosaur Antarctisaurus because they figured it lived in Antarctica and we never find any there. So there’s an Antarctisaurus from South America.

1:48
So we found that and then we found parts of another dinosaur, a plant-eating dinosaur, called a Prosauropod, which is a Padasaurus, Brontosaurus, those are the big Sauropods. These are older, these dinosaurs, than some of the North American well-known ones. They are about 200 million years old, from early in the Jurassic period, so it’s pretty early in the history of dinosaurs.

2:11
And then we found part of a flying reptile — a pterosaur — and we found some broken teeth from some small meat-eating dinosaurs that were apparently scavenging the dead carcass of the larger meat-eater. And then we found parts of a little animal called a Synapsid, which is a group — it’s not a group of dinosaurs, it’s a group of reptiles more, mammals evolved from. So they’re mammal-like reptiles.

2:48
So we have from this one site we have five different animals so far. And we’re going back to that site this November to collect some more because there is still stuff there, and we’re going to look around the area for some hopefully new sites.

3:19
Other seasons we’ve been down there we’ve found things at other places but they aren’t dinosaurs. They’re older. We’ve found things
>from the early part and middle part of the Triassic period. The early
part is 245 million years and the middle part is 225 and dinosaurs first appear 210 or 215 million years ago. So both of those faunas are older and didn’t have dinosaurs. They had different kinds of reptiles. A lot of the Synapsids — the mammal-like reptiles — were found in those localities.

JC:
How many times have you been down?

4:00
Six. Since my first trip as a grad student in ’78, then I went again in ’82, ’86, ’90 – ’91, ’95, and then I was down there again just doing some reconnaissance in ’99.

JC: So what is the purpose of the trip you have coming up in November?

4:23
To go back to the area… The area the dinosaur is in is really hard to get to which is why it’s taken us a while to get the logistics to get back there — the support. So we intend to go back to that site and remove — there are still bones there we didn’t finish, we had to leave, it was the end of the season. Work that site. And then look around at other places very high in the mountains, similar to that site and find some new localities.

513
It usually takes three to five years. This one is longer because we were supposed to go a couple of years ago. See, the national science foundation Antarctic program has a logistic base on an island on the coast. And they fly us in on these C1-30, LC 130 planes with skis, and they have six or seven of these planes.

They look like military transport C130s with skis. You know the prop planes they move the troops around in? A really common military plane but they put skis on them. So they are pretty good size planes — they’re not little. But, anyway, they have a logistic system set up on this island and they can support X number of research projects in different places across the continent.

612
Well, for where we go we need helicopters 500 miles from the coast. So not only does it take the plane flights to get us in there, the planes have to lay fuel for the helicopters and they have to fly supplies in to a temporary helicopter support camp. So it takes quite a number of these LC130 ski plane flights to run the kind of camp we’re going to be working out of. And for the last six or seven years they’ve been rebuilding a research station at the South Pole. So that’s drained all the ski-plane time — the LC130 time — away from major remote projects because they’ve been using the planes to fly equipment, construction people into the South Pole and back. So this thing was funded — it was approved for a couple of years ago, then it’s been, it didn’t go because of logistics, but now it’s going again. It doesn’t always take 7 years to plan it but sometimes it takes it to pull it off if the logistics support isn’t available.

727
Well, we fly from here commercially to Christchurch, New Zealand. There is an Antarctic center in Christchurch that’s run by the National Science Foundation. We get clothing and equipment there in NZ. Then we get on a ski plane there and fly about 2500 miles — 8 hours, maybe 10, depends on the wind –down to this island off the coast of Antarctica, where McMurdo station is. There we get our equipment, field training and survival training. And then we’re another 500 miles south, inland from there, 500 miles from this base on the coast, out in the Transantarctic Mountains.

We get out to the site by plane, but then we can’t get to this dinosaur site without helicopters because its really high altitude.

JC: Do you hike up?

We do some other sites, some sites we travel by snowmobile and travel up to them but this one we can’t get to in any other way.

8:50
12 and a half. The mountain’s about 15 and we’re not quite to the top so we’re about 12 and a half thousand.

912
Well, it presents its challenges because of the weather. Actually we can’t use some of the methods we’d normally use in warmer climates, like plaster jacketing is real difficult because plaster freezes before it sets. So we get around that in other ways. We stabilize the bones pretty well with glues and stuff before we take them out so we don’t have to jacket them.

Sometime we have trouble with the equipment because we use gasoline-powered hammers and drills and they don’t like to start very well at 25 below zero. But probably the worst thing is taking field notes because you have to take your gloves off. And notes are critical in the field so that you know; you have to know what came from where and how it all goes back together and also the
depositional settings so you can recreate how it came to be there, the taphonomy of the place. So it’s a little bit different.

JC: How do you stand that?

1025
WH: Well, you write fast. We have contact gloves, which are made so that– real thin gloves so that if you touch any metal you don’t stick to it. So you can write with the contact gloves. You jot things down, put your gloves back on. On and off all the time.

1121
We live in tents, do our own cooking on Coleman stoves in tents. So we don’t have sandstorms — we have white outs and high wind conditions, which are the worst things for us, where it gets so windy you can’t work and you can’t see — everything’s blowing around.

1201
We go through training at McMurdo station before we go out. You go through survival training. They teach you how to climb up and down ropes to get out of crevasses, basic first aid, cold weather survival, how to make a shelter if your tent blows down, out of snow or ice or whatever. Then we go out and test out all our equipment that we’re going to use in the field to make sure nothing’s missing, everything works. So we go out for a little camping trip for a couple of days and go through this training. Then everybody is familiar with all the equipment and how everything works.

1240
I haven’t had too much trouble — you have to pick your crew carefully. They have to have the right kind of personality as well as the ability to find fossils.

Well, some people just can’t deal with the… two problems. Either the isolation gets to them, you know you’re out there freezing there’s nobody around there is nothing to do, you’re just all by yourself, and that freaks some people out. Or you get people with certain — you know, you’re living for a couple of months, just a few people in close quarters — you have to have people who aren’t too, more of a laid back sort of a personality, easy to deal with… So it’s just something — working with people in the field I kind of can judge I think who will work out OK and who won’t. I only had one or two bad experiences early on.

JC: Particular methods?

1410
No, I don’t think so. I mean, collecting fossils is collecting fossils, it’s just a different climate. We have to deal with the cold, but we don’t have to worry about snakes and mosquitoes and things like that.

JC: What is this contributing?

1445
We — Antarctica is an interesting place because we don’t know very much about its history compared to other continents because only 2% of it’s exposed — 98% of it is covered in ice. So whatever glimpse we can get of that history is relatively important. We’re looking at things at a time when Antarctica had an entirely different climate, it wasn’t at the South Pole, that’s really a record about as extreme a climate change as you can get. To have a place where you have lush vegetation and all these reptiles living to a place that now is in the summer is 25 below zero and in the winter is 120 below zero.

1530
And so it’s interesting from that perspective — its also interesting because some of the things we’re finding down there are very unique. These dinosaurs from Antarctica are very old and are the oldest ones
>from this very successful lineage of dinosaurs and this is the oldest
member of this lineage it belongs to by 30 or 40 years. So it tells us that Antarctica was the center of dinosaur evolution very early on in the Mesozoic. So it fits together with what we know from all the other continents. We just don’t have anywhere near as much information. So what little we get is relatively important. We find a lot of dinosaurs in North America. So finding a new one here isn’t as big a deal as Antarctica where you only have a couple.

Tetenuran theropods, they’re called. The theropods are the meat-eating dinosaurs. Bipedal, big heads, you know, they weren’t all big. T-rex is a theropod, Allosaurus is a theropod. This is about a 22-foot long theropod, which is about 1/2 the size of a t-rex.

1703
Its early Jurassic, which is about 190 to 200 million years ago, and dinosaurs first appear in the late Triassic, about 210 or 15 million years ago. So this is pretty early in the history of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs lived for about 215 million years ago to 65 million years ago. So these were about 190 to 200 — that’s how we have them bracketed. So they are very, very early in the evolutionary history of dinosaurs. T-rex lived closer to now than it did to this dinosaur because t-rex lived 65 million years ago. See what I mean? So, 65 million years ago, you have to go back to 200 million, another 130, 100 million to get to this dinosaur.

1821
Well, we didn’t know what the Jurassic climates were like until then, but we knew that it was warmer earlier in the Triassic because we’d found these other animals first. What this did do, though, is when we found these Jurassic dinosaurs early on, and presented papers on this, there were some Jurassic climate models around — people do climate modeling — and they predicted that it was much colder in the Jurassic down there than it could have been for those dinosaurs. So that ‘s probably, whatever you read, that’s probably what they were alluding to, that there were some climate models that didn’t match this and they had to change their story a little bit.

JC: Like working there?

1910
Sure, it has its moments. Well, I’m used to it. I guess it’s not as exciting as it used to be because I’ve done it a lot. Its a wonderful place, a beautiful place, its really great to go down there again, then after you’re there for about a month, six weeks, its really, really nice to think about coming back. Stay in NZ an extra week and warm up where its summer.

JC: Long term… what’s the time scale for this next trip?

1950
Well, end of the summer here we have to ship all of our equipment that we have in my lab to California. They’ll put it on a ship to NZ, they’ll fly it down to McMurdo station before we get there. We go down about mid-November, then we’ll spend 10 days at McMurdo station, going through our training, getting every thing ready to go in the field, then we’re going to go out and spend the month of December in the field. We’ve only got support this year for a month. Sometimes we have two months. So we’re going to be gone — this will be about a six or seven week trip instead of an 8 to 10 week trip.

JC: How does the research proceed?

2045
We ship the fossils back in the rock. We don’t remove them in the — we take rock out with fossils in the field. So we get these chunks of rock with bones in them back in the lab and then I have a preparator who uses pneumatic tools –air tools, little jackhammers and things– to chisel rock away from the bones. It’s a pretty tedious process because the rock is pretty hard that we’ve been getting the stuff out of.

2155
Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. We have a research preparation lab set up. After we get the bones back… OK, just for example, we collected those bones in 1991, well, the paper that first described that dinosaur came out in 1994 — its a two or three year process in the lab, full-time, getting the bones out. I had a guy work full time just on the skull of this animal for a year. Just to get it out.

2304
Well we weren’t packed up and ready to leave… WE were working another site that we’d finished and so we were just starting to — it was about 1/2 way through the season looking for new sites — we’d only done it for a day or so. And a colleague working on another project, who works on lava flows–there were a lot of lava flows where these rocks were, where the dinosaur was–found a piece of loose rock on his way up to look at lava flows that looked like it had something in it that he thought might have been a bone or something. So I flew out, and it was a piece of bone in it and we just had to figure out where it had weathered from so we looked around that area and came across a –walked up to this — finally came up to the spot where this was and there was like a three foot long femur sticking out of the side of the rock. It was pretty crazy, pretty exciting.

We knew we had the first dinosaurs because it was too big to be anything else. The other stuff we’d been collecting was much smaller.

JC: Was this the first dinosaur found in Antarctica?

2410
On the continent itself. There were some scraps of Cretaceous dinosaurs found on some islands off the peninsula in the late ’80s.

Well we got pretty excited about it. I left my crew doing some work back at the camp and I just went out to check out this one thing he found — they were on their way somewhere else. So we picked this guy up and he came with us, the petrologist, the lava guy. I’m standing there with my mouth kind of open and his first thing is — typical petrologist–he says, “What is it??” And I say, “I can’t make an on-site diagnosis, you know.” I just told him that I can’ t tell you that for sure but I know it’s a dinosaur.

We started the next day, worked there rest of the season…

What you have in your mind?