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.

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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.

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Announcing Notocolossus, the southern giant

Hey everyone, AP3 paleontologist Matt Lamanna here. Thanks to my friend and colleague Bernardo González Riga of the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo and CONICET, I recently had the privilege to participate in the study of a gigantic new species of sauropod (long-necked, long-tailed plant-eating dinosaur) from roughly 86 million-year-old rocks in Mendoza Province, Argentina. Along with our collaborators Leonardo Ortiz David, Jorge Calvo, and Juan Pedro Coria, Bernardo and I named the new creature Notocolossus gonzalezparejasi, which means “González Parejas’ southern giant.” Notocolossus is a titanosaur, a group of sauropods that has been in the news a lot lately, and that includes what are almost certainly the heaviest land animals of all time. Although, due to the incompleteness of its fossils, it’s difficult to precisely estimate the size of Notocolossus, its humerus, or upper arm bone, is 1.76 m (5 ft 9 in) long, longer than that of any other titanosaur for which this bone is preserved, including two other giants that I helped to study and name, Dreadnoughtus and Paralititan. This in turn suggests that the new Mendoza beast is one of the biggest titanosaurs, and indeed one of the largest known land animals of all! Moreover, Notocolossus preserves the first totally complete hind foot ever discovered for a giant titanosaur, and it’s pretty weird! It’s proportionally shorter and stockier than other sauropod feet, and it contains a surprisingly small number of bones. And whereas other sauropod hind feet have three sickle-shaped claws, Notocolossus has lumpy, amorphous blobs of bone in their place (though we can’t rule out that these might be due to disease or injury in this particular specimen).

Below is a beautiful (in my humble opinion) illustration by Taylor Maggiacomo of the new titanosaur in its Late Cretaceous habitat in Mendoza, threatening a pair of much smaller meat-eating abelisaurid dinosaurs.

01 Notocolossus life reconstruction (Maggiacomo)

And here’s a shot of (from left to right) Leonardo, Bernardo, and me with the upper end of the massive right humerus (upper arm bone). Credit for this one goes to Bernardo.

02 González Riga et al with Notocolossus humerus (González Riga)

And another — Bernardo with the humerus. Again, it’s the longest known for any titanosaur! Credit: Bernardo.

03 González Riga with Notocolossus humerus (González Riga)

And finally the peculiar hind foot of the beast. On the left is Bernardo digging it up. On the right is the foot after all the rock had been cleaned off by his fossil preparators. Credit to Bernardo again.

06 Notocolossus hind foot (González Riga)

Here’s the text of our whole press release, just issued today, if you want to learn more! You can also contact Bernardo or I directly with questions.

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Paleontologists Announce Discovery of New Dinosaur Notocolossus, One of the Largest Known Land Animals

Finding provides first complete look at the hind foot of the world’s biggest dinosaurs

Researchers have discovered a gigantic new species of dinosaur that is among the largest yet known to science. Named Notocolossus gonzalezparejasi, the new creature provides key information about the hind foot of giant titanosaurs, which are widely regarded as the most massive land animals that have ever existed. Notocolossus was described from fossil bones belonging to the back, tail, forelimb, and pelvis, plus a complete ankle and foot. The paper describing the discovery appears today in Scientific Reports, a freely-accessible journal from the publishers of Nature.

The two described fossil skeletons of Notocolossus were unearthed in southern Mendoza Province, Argentina, from rocks laid down late in the Cretaceous Period, roughly 86 million years ago. Both specimens were discovered by the study leader and project director, Argentine paleontologist Dr. Bernardo González Riga of CONICET (the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas), IANIGLA, and the Laboratorio de Dinosaurios of the Facultad de Ciencias Exactas y Naturales of the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo (UNCUYO) in Mendoza Province. Other members of the research team include Dr. Matt Lamanna of Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, USA, and three other Argentine paleontologists: Leonardo Ortiz David and Juan Pedro Coria of CONICET-IANIGLA and the UNCUYO Laboratorio de Dinosaurios and Dr. Jorge Calvo of the Centro Paleontológico Lago Barreales of the Universidad Nacional del Comahue in Neuquén Province.

According to Dr. González Riga, “Giant titanosaurs were the heaviest terrestrial creatures that ever lived. But the hind feet of these dinosaurs—which are critical for understanding how they stood and moved—were not completely known until now. Now we have new evidence that helps to solve this mystery.”

Titanosaurs are an important but puzzling group of dinosaurs. They are a type of sauropod, the huge, long-necked, long-tailed plant-eaters that many people think of when they hear the word “dinosaur.” Comprising more than 60 named species, titanosaurs lived on every continent and ranged in size from the weight of a cow to at least the weight of the heaviest humpback whales. They were the most common large herbivores in the Gondwanan (i.e., Southern Hemisphere) continents during the Cretaceous Period, the third and final time period of the Mesozoic Era, or Age of Dinosaurs. Despite their extraordinary species richness and diversity in body size, many aspects of titanosaur anatomy, evolution, behavior, and ecology are not well understood. This is due largely to the fact that most of these dinosaurs are known from woefully incomplete fossils, a situation that—with only a few exceptions, such as the still-unnamed species unveiled last week at New York’s American Museum of Natural History—is particularly pronounced in giant titanosaurs. Says Dr. Lamanna, “Most of the very biggest titanosaurs are known from just a few bones, which has made it really hard for paleontologists to learn much about them.”

Notocolossus is no exception in this regard; nevertheless, evidence suggests that it was among the largest titanosaurs, and therefore one of the heaviest land animals, yet discovered. Although the incompleteness of the skeleton of the new sauropod has prevented scientists from making precise estimates of its size, its humerus, or upper arm bone, is 1.76 m (5 ft 9 in) in length, which is longer than that of any other titanosaur for which this bone is known, including other giants such as Dreadnoughtus, Futalognkosaurus, and Paralititan. If, as is likely, the body proportions of Notocolossus were comparable to those of better preserved titanosaurs, the new beast was probably around 25–28 m (82–92 ft) in length and may have weighed between 40,000 and 60,000 kg (44–66 short tons, as much as roughly 9–13 zoo elephants put together). The gargantuan size and Argentinean location of the new titanosaur were the inspiration for its genus name, Notocolossus, which translates to “southern giant.” The species name is in honor of Jorge González Parejas, a Mendoza-based lawyer who has made significant contributions to the protection of that region’s paleontological heritage.

The enormous sizes attained by gigantic sauropods have generated a great deal of interest in the biology of these dinosaurs. Notocolossus is the first truly giant titanosaur for which the hind foot skeleton is known in its entirety. Interestingly, its foot shows anatomical peculiarities relative to those of other titanosaurs—such as an exceptionally short and robust, uniform construction—that may well be adaptations for supporting its extraordinary bulk. Moreover, the foot of the new creature contains a small number of bones, underscoring the fact that titanosaurs had the most reduced toes of all sauropods. Why these huge creatures apparently shrunk their toes remains a puzzle, but it stands in stark contrast to the evolutionary trend observed in another group of colossal land animals – the Proboscidea, which includes elephants and their close relatives. Rather than decreasing their number of toe bones, proboscideans actually increased the number of bones in their feet over the course of their evolution. The hind feet of elephants and sauropods show that these creatures evolved different skeletal strategies for supporting their massive bodies. “Now that we have the whole foot of a giant titanosaur, we can learn more about how these dinosaurs were able to carry more weight around than any other land animal in the history of life,” notes Dr. González Riga. “Argentina was truly the land of giants during the Cretaceous – and Notocolossus gives us new evidence on how these giants got so big.”

Gearing up for the expedition

We’re only three weeks away from our next Antarctic expedition, and all of the required pieces are falling into place. It’s been a long time coming, and a LOT of work, but we’re excited to finally be getting back to Antarctica, and grateful to the National Science Foundation for giving us the opportunity. With many logistics professionals, two helicopters, and an enormous research ship to help us out, our expedition should be very well-equipped. We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to access some rarely-visited (by paleontologists and geologists) parts of the Antarctic Peninsula, and that we’ll find interesting and important fossils from the end of the Age of Dinosaurs at these places. With up to three separate teams of four to five scientists operating at any one time, there should be plenty to talk about. So please check this site and our Twitter feed (@antarcticdinos) frequently for updates from the field!

Welcome to AntarcticDinos.org, the website of the Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project

We of the Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project are pleased to launch our new website, just in time for our next expedition to Antarctica (which will run from February 1 to March 24, 2016). Check out the site to learn more about us, our project, and our discoveries to date, and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have comments or questions! Also, please follow us on Twitter and read our blog for the latest project news, including field updates from Antarctica and more.