Visual diary: the view from Sandwich Bluff

From the creative mind of AP3 team member Abby West.


Feb. 28: This drawing shows the view looking east from atop Sandwich Bluff towards Seymour Island, the site of our second camp. Sandwich Bluff is the main fossil site for AP3 on Vega Island. It’s very high in elevation and difficult to reach except by helicopter. Fossil penguins, in addition to some really remarkable fossil fish material, are the highlights of the Seymour Camp so far. The middle ground shows parts of James Ross Island (Ula Point, the Naze, the Dagger), and the island of Humps, separated by narrow channels choc-a-bloc with sea ice.

In the lowland joining Naze to Dagger some of our team encountered a single juvenile Adelie penguin who seemed fascinated to watch their work (from a cautious distance). Up front we see the edge of Sandwich Bluff’s southeastern flank, bearing the plesiosaur quarry site, and above, pilot Jim and the beautiful blue bird Raptor 5 appearing out of a warm, sunny blue sky. Raptor 5 is one of the two helicopters supporting our expedition. It’s pretty cool that helicopters named “Raptor” are supporting a dinosaur hunt. Very Jurassic Park!

What are AP3’s biggest, weirdest and favorite dinos? And other questions asked.

We have received many questions from our younger followers and those who are young at heart. Here’s a collection of some of the more common questions that have been asked.

Q: Which dinosaurs do you hope to find?
A: We hope to find an Abelisaurid theropod, a horned/ornamented predatory dinosaur or a titanosaurian sauropod, a large herbivorous dinosaur. Dinosaurs are rare in the rocks we plan to explore. The most likely kind of dinosaur we may find would be an ornithopod, a small-bodied herbivorous dinosaur.

Q: How do you know what color the dinosaurs were?
A: We don’t for sure! We compare the dinos with living animals from similar habitats to estimate what color they might have been.

Q: What would you do if you found a real living dinosaur? Would you be scared?
A: Because birds are living dinosaurs, we would not be at all surprised! I hope we see some penguins and albatross. (If we found a living non-avian dinosaur, we would be VERY SURPRISED!!)

Q: What does it feel like to find a dinosaur bone? Is it exciting?
A: It is exciting! When you find a fossil, you are the first living creature to see it since it died! A couple of things that never fail to inspire awe: Remembering that the fossil you’re holding used to be part of a living creature. Thinking about/trying to conceptualize the VAST timescales we study. 70 MILLION YEARS! And that’s not even super long, in the context of the history of the earth!

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment in your scientific fields?
A: Matt here: My proudest accomplishment is the co-discovery of humongous new dino in Egypt back when I was in grad school, that we named Paralititan stromeri.

Abby here: I suppose my proudest accomplishment so far is having very-nearly-finished a PhD. With any luck, that’ll soon be much less important compared to my future major accomplishments!

Q: What is your favorite discovery?
A: Abby here: My favorite discovery was a fossil mammal skull, in Wyoming. We can figure out how old a fossil is by studying the rocks it’s found in– we can compare the layers of rock (stratigraphy) to figure out which one is oldest, or use methods similar to carbon dating to get a numerical age.

Matt here — my favorite discovery that I was a part of was in Egypt in 2000, when some grad school buds and I found a new species of dino that’s one of the largest ever discovered, Paralititan stromeri.

Q: What are non-avian dinosaurs ?
A: Literally, any dinosaur that is not a bird. Birds are a living lineage of dinosaurs that survived the mass extinction that happened 66 million years ago. This a handy phrase to provide a distinction between what people normally think of as dinosaurs (those that are extinct) versus birds, which are the surviving group of dinosaurs.

Q: What is the weirdest animal you’ve found?
A: Matt here: To me, the weirdest animal that has been found here is, ironically, the one that would be the most familiar to us today: the duck-like bird Vegavis. It’s weird because birds living at the same time elsewhere in the world are only distantly related to modern birds (they had teeth, may have been fairly poor fliers, etc). Also the plesiosaur Morturneria is thought by some to have been a filter-feeder, which would be pretty weird. Imagine a marine reptile trying to be a humpback whale!

Q: Why did you choose this as your career?
A: Matt here. I went into paleontology because I told my parents I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was four, and never really thought of doing anything else. What made me a paleontologist? Hard work, persistence, patience, and a whole lot of luck.

Q: What’s the largest fossil you’ve seen unearthed? And what was it?
A: Matt here: I’ve had the good fortune to have helped discover two of the world’s largest dinosaurs: Paralititan in Egypt in 2000 and Dreadnoughtus in Argentina in 2005. The limb bones of those things are almost as tall (or in a couple cases, taller) than I am, and I’m 5′ 11″.

Q: Have any of your fossil ended up in museums we could visit?
A: Yes, many of us have discovered fossils that are currently on display in museums, though many of these are overseas in the countries in which they were found. For example, the bones of Paralititan are in the Egyptian Geological Museum in Cairo and those of Dreadnoughtus are in the Museo Padre Molina in Rio Gallegos, Argentina.

Q: How are you preserving/transporting the samples you collect?
A: All fossils are wrapped and padded for transport back to the States. Ultimately, they will become part of a museum collection.

Q: Where do you stay and sleep for the trip?
A: Our permanent base is aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer, a NSF science research ship. From there, different groups from our team will be going ashore to camp at various localities that we get to from zodiac boats and/or helicopters. We will not be going into or be based out of any of the permanent camps/bases on Antarctica.

Q: How possible is it to reconstruct dinosaurs from the DNA found in bones and insects in amber?
A: Abby here: there is a growing field of study that aims to extract and sequence DNA and protein molecules from fossils. In some of my own research, I have sequenced genes from the bones of wooly mammoths and ancient bison. Unfortunately, the maximum lifespan of DNA (before it has all decayed away) seems to be only a few hundred thousand years, so we probably won’t be able to get any DNA from the Age of Dinosaurs.

Q: What do paleontologists do when they aren’t digging?
A: When we aren’t digging, we are studying what we dug up! We compare it to what we already know, like other fossils and living animals, and we write papers to report what we found. Then we write grants to get funds to do more digging! Those of us who are students take classes and do our own research. Those of us who are professors teach classes and advise our students. Those of us who work at museums make sure our fossils find safe, happy homes where scientists like us and the public like you can see them anytime they like.

Q: Were all the major dinosaur groups on Antarctica?
A: Nope! There have been reports of hadrosaurs, ankylosaurs, ornithopods, theropods (like dromaeosaurs and several early birds) and sauropods (like titanosaurs). So far, we haven’t found any large-bodied theropods (like abelisaurs), which we might expect based on what we know about their distribution in the Late Cretaceous. We don’t expect to find some more famous Cretaceous dinosaurs like Triceratops, tyrannosaurids and pachycephalosaurs, which are known only from the Northern Hemisphere.



AP3 Visual Diary: A colorful, whimsical look at the expedition

In the evenings, some of the AP3 team camping on Vega Island have been making drawings meant to summarize the day’s activities in a fun and often whimsical way. Over the next few blogs, we will post these visual diaries along with some notes. Below is the first installment featuring the art of APE team member Abby West.


Feb 26: This is an interpretive map of Vega Island, as seen from the west, marked with some of the localities we have discovered and the names we gave them, as well as some of the interesting fossils found there.


Feb 27: This is a more emotional piece, featuring two creatures entwined in a mid-air battle. The combatants are Caped Lamb (a metaphor for Cape Lamb, the location of our camp) and a hapless plesiosaur (a metaphor for the 3 or 4 plesiosaur partial skeletons we have so far uncovered). Plesiosaurs are long-necked, extinct marine reptile skuas. On Caped Lamb’s cape is a typical Vega Island scene, with a carpet of moss on the valley floor between dusty brown bluffs and ever-watchful skuas circling overhead. The lower quarter of this picture portrays a more serene moment of the day, when the Vega team dined al fresco: we lined up a single row of chairs facing the ocean and watched a magnificent sunset while eating chicken pad thai.

Have questions about the expedition? Here are some answers.

Thank you to the many people who have been following our expedition on this website and our Twitter account. We’ve been getting lots of questions about the trip and our work. During a recent Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, we received more than 400 questions that were fielded by the team. Over the next several blog posts, we will share our responses to many of the questions people want to know.

Q: Where was the Antarctica located during the period you are studying?
A: Antarctica, more or less, is still in the same location as it was during the Late Cretaceous. But at the time the Antarctic Peninsula was still connected to the southernmost tip of South America as well as Australia on the other end. The final break-up between Antarctica and South America was around 34 million years ago.

Q: Will you be digging under deep layers of ice?
A: We will not be digging through ice for our expedition. Our expedition is timed for the end of the Austral summer, when most rock along the northernmost tip of the peninsula is readily available. There will be glaciers where we will be working but they will not be covering all of the islands where we will be working. Unfortunately, the possibility of a snow storm can still limit the amount of exposed rock with fossils.

Q: How will your tools and equipment differ compared to projects in warmer climates?
A: The tools we will be bringing will be similar to what we normally bring on our expeditions. The exception would be the plaster which may have some difficulty setting in the colder environment. We will also be wearing more clothes and layers than normal.

Q: Will you be near penguin colonies?
A: Thankfully, our sites of interest are far from any penguin colonies, so we won’t be disturbing our little feathered friends.

Q: What is the biggest anticipated challenge facing the expedition?
A: The thing that concerns us most are the weather and climate conditions in our study area. If it’s super-windy or foggy, our helicopters can’t fly, and if there’s fast ice stuck to the islands we want to visit, our small boats (i.e., landing craft) can’t reach them. If it snows, the rocks are covered, and so we can’t find the fossils in them. Lots of different environmental factors could pose problems for us. Other potential hazards include injuries, exhaustion, frostbite, inability to find fossils in some places, and problems with helicopters.

Q: How do you find fossils?
A: In brief, there are basically two ways by which one can determine where to look for fossils. The first has to do with the fact that most of the Earth’s surface has been mapped from a geological standpoint. Geologic maps show what rocks are exposed at the surface. Fossils are found almost exclusively in sedimentary rocks (e.g., shale, mudstone, sandstone) as opposed to igneous and metamorphic rocks. So the first step would be to examine the map for those. Next, for those interested in dinosaurs, scour the map for sedimentary rocks that were deposited during the Mesozoic Era or Age of Dinosaurs ( we know that dinos evolved more-or-less 235 million years ago and died out (except for their descendants, birds) 66 million years ago). So search the map for sedimentary rocks that were deposited during that time. Lastly, dinos were almost exclusively land-dwelling animals, so look for Mesozoic sedimentary rocks that were deposited in bodies of water that were near land (i.e., rivers, ponds, lakes, ocean coastlines). If all three criteria are met, and you can get to the place, you might have a fighting chance of finding dino fossils there.

The second way is simpler — you just go where people have found fossils before.

Field Report: An abundance of fossils

oconnorReport from the field:

Feb. 15–18 saw continued work on Sandwich Bluff and two helicopter-supported day trips to Seymour Island. Both of these areas produced an abundance of well-preserved Late Cretaceous and Eocene-aged fossils, including those of birds, plesiosaurs (long-necked marine reptiles; numerous isolated bones and at least one partial skeleton), bony fishes (including several skulls and partial skeletons), sharks, whales, unidentified vertebrates, and a variety of beautifully-preserved invertebrates (e.g., ammonites, nautiloids, gastropods, bivalves, crustaceans).

Geological investigations of the uppermost levels of the Sandwich Bluff Member of the López de Bertodano Formation on Vega Island were also initiated. The purpose of these studies is to test the hypothesis, advanced by our working group in a 2014 paper, that the uppermost levels of this Member are early Paleogene in age.

Reconnaissance teams also visited several additional localities, such as Blancmange Hill and The Naze of James Ross Island and the Devil Island area, the north coast, and False Island Point of Vega Island. Of particular note was the discovery of (seemingly) previously unrecognized exposures of the Upper Cretaceous Cape Lamb Member of the Snow Hill Island Formation north of False Island Point on the western shore of Pastorizo Bay. These deposits were intensively prospected on Feb. 19, yielding (among other specimens) a complete hexanchid shark (Notidanodon sp.) tooth, an unidentified vertebrate element that may be a lower jaw, and a wealth of extremely well-preserved invertebrate material. Additional reconnaissance of Blancmange Hill, northeastern James Ross Island, and southeastern Vega Island is scheduled for Feb. 20.


Field Report: Helicopter recon

chopper_reconReport from the field:

Installation of the Cape Lamb camp was completed on the morning of February 14. That same day, a four-person team conducted a helicopter-supported reconnaissance of Cape Marsh, on the southeastern margin of remote Robertson Island in the Seal Nunataks, some ~120 km south of the James Ross Island Group. Though no vertebrate fossils were discovered, the team did collect abundant and well-preserved Cretaceous invertebrates (e.g., ammonites, gastropods, bivalves), fossil wood, and geological samples. The geology and paleontology of Robertson Island have been only briefly described (more than three decades ago).

Cape Marsh recon


Field Report: Encouraging start for science activities

Report from the field:

Science activities for AP3 are off to an encouraging start. RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP) arrived at the targeted field area, the James Ross Island Group of the northern Antarctic Peninsula, on Feb. 12, having left Punta Arenas on Feb. 8.

The next morning the team began installing our primary field camp on the western side of Cape Lamb of Vega Island, in proximity to one of our most important paleontological and geological localities, Sandwich Bluff. Unfortunately, due to the ice-choked nature of the western shore of the island, we could not establish camp as far north as we would have liked; nevertheless, Sandwich Bluff is still accessible from camp on foot. Simultaneously, a three-person team conducted a reconnaissance of Ula Point of northeastern James Ross Island, ultimately determining that the area was not sufficiently promising to merit the deployment of a field camp.


Connections to Antarctic exploration history

AP3 Paleontologist Julia Clarke here.

Near the end of the day, during our Feb. 14 exploration of Robertson Island,  we ended up on the top of the bluff. I hiked out far to the north along the edge of the glacier that covered most of the island. About 20 meters out, a tiny, differently-colored object glinted slightly. It turned out to be the end of a harpoon-shaped metal point. It was apparently quite old. The tip was somewhat blunted by design.

I started researching the history of Robertson Island as much as I could with limited resources shipboard that evening.

In 1893, Carl Larsen (of the Larsen ice sheets) named Robertson after supposedly ascending to the top of the volcano to verify its island status. He is supposed to have skied down the glacier- apparently the first ski trip in Antarctica!

I’m fascinated that I just might have found a tiny piece of Antarctic exploration history. Perhaps a flag planted high on the glacier during that trip? Much-weathered wood is preserved in the hollow base of the point. This we might be able to carbon date. In another tie-in to our current trip, Larsen’s expedition reported the first fossils from Seymour Island.

Abundant finds on Valentine’s Day

IMG_4340On Feb. 14, part of the team (Roberts, Lamanna, Clarke, O’Connor) went down to Robertson Island. The weather was perfect. We flew out over the Ice in our first helo flight with pilot Jim. Seals scampered across large bergs far below us leaving striking tracks.  The helo landing was smooth and the outcrop was IMG_4361impressive- a tiny piece of earth exposed on an ice covered island.

The whole group collected abundant invertebrates while Roberts focused on the geologic context. The first thing we saw when prospecting were abundant weathered penguin feathers (not fossil). Mostly, contour feathers, they seemed to have been moulted. Trace fossils were especially common.



Packing and Preparations Complete. Antarctica Here We Come.

Here’s an update on the AP3 team’s progress so far.

Packing for Antarctica

On Feb. 1, members of the AP3 team left home and flew to Punta Arenas Chile. Before starting their adventure, they packed, keeping in mind weather conditions, comfort and practicalities for their stay in Antarctica. Everyone has their own special must-haves on a trip like this. Ohio University doctoral student Eric Gorscak brought along a Palmer Station vest and baseball cap, while The University of Queensland Paleontologist Steve Salisbury made sure to pack Vegemite.travel_prep

Training Preparations

The team spent several days in Chile preparing for the trip. They practiced putting up a variety of tents, from survival tents to a porta-shelter. They were also required to do cold water survival training and helicopter rigging training. Helicopters will help transport the team from the Nathaniel B. Palmer, a U.S. Antarctic Program research ship, to field camps on the Antarctic Peninsula. The team is currently on board the ship headed to Antarctica.

While in Chile, the team spent time at the US Antarctic Program’s warehouse getting outfitted for the trip and packing food. Supplies were then loaded onto the ship with cranes.prep

Heading to Antarctica

The team departed on the Nathaniel Palmer at 5 a.m. on Feb. 8 with calm seas through the Straights of Magellan and large swells as they rounded Cape Horn. The seas settled down a bit once they reached the Drake Passage. If you’d like to track the progress of the ship, visit the Marine Traffic website.

Stay tuned to hear more about the expedition. The team should arrive at their base location in Antarctica on Feb. 13.