New Expedition Hunts for Dinosaurs — And More! — Beneath Antarctic Ice

Question: What's the coolest job in the world?

Egyptologist? Really close! Definitely Top 5 material.

Paleoanthropologist? Ooooh, getting there!

Answer: Antarctic dinosaur hunter, duh!

The world's coolest job would obviously involve packing up a bunch of pickaxes, tiny brooms, a loaf of high-tech performance layers, and journeying to Antarctica, the final frontier of paleontology, on the hunt for fossils of all sorts.

This week, at the height of Antarctic summer, the Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project (AP3), comprising scientists from the United States, Australia and South Africa, will travel to James Ross Island on the northeastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The peninsula is the part of Antarctica closest to South America, and the only place on the continent where fossil-bearing rock is exposed for a brief window each year. There, the expedition will spend the month working to uncover clues that might illuminate the role prehistoric Antarctica played in the evolution of birds and mammals we know today.

"It's impossible not to be excited to reach remote sites via helicopter and icebreaker to look for dinosaurs and other life forms from over 66 million years ago," said Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at the UT Austin Jackson School of Geosciences, in the team's press release detailing the expedition.

Due to weather conditions, James Ross Island is flat-out uninhabitable for more than about a month each year, and nearly impossible to get to the rest of the time, as it's generally buried under almost 1,000 feet (300 meters) of ice. But that's just a flimsy skin of frost compared to what covers the other 99 percent of Antarctica: a sheet of permanent ice more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) thick. By contrast, during the late Cretaceous period, Antarctica was downright balmy, home to dinosaurs and all manner of other plants and animals researchers would love to get a look at today, if only they could get at their fossilized remains.

Researchers on AP3's 2011 expedition stand on the 1 percent of Antarctica not covered in permanent ice, looking at the other 99 percent beyond the horizon.

It's aggravating. But it's for this reason that James Ross island becomes irresistible to paleontologists during the month of February, when a few patches of fossil-bearing rock thaw out, and the Antarctic dinosaur hunters start dreaming about complete dinosaur skeletons poking out of the sides of chilly rock outcrops.

The AP3 team (keep track of the expedition via Twitter) has grounds for getting hopes up about this visit: James Ross Island has delivered in the past. A few years ago, a team of Argentine researchers discovered fossils of a previously unknown bird, closely related to modern ducks and geese. 

This discovery shook up the avian science world because it proved modern birds coexisted with dinosaurs, when before they were thought to have evolved after dinosaurs had already disappeared. And massive sauropod fossils were discovered in the same area in 2011.

Once the expedition launches on Tuesday, February 2, AP3 researchers will cast a wide net:

“We're looking for fossils of backboned animals that were living in Antarctica at the very end of the Age of Dinosaurs, so we can learn more about how the devastating extinction that happened right afterward might have affected polar ecosystems." says Matthew Lamanna, paleontologist and assistant curator at the Carnegie Museum.

Members of the 2011 AP3 expedition trek across Antarctic ice.

The researchers will also look specifically for signs of mammals. Antarctic ecosystems may have been important incubation grounds for the mammalian explosion that followed the extinction event that killed off all non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period.

"This trip is very exciting, as we have assembled a fantastic team of scientists and students," says Patrick O'Connor, a professor at the Ohio University. "Moreover, we have additional logistical support in the form of helicopters that can get us into places that have not been explored in the past. This exemplifies frontier paleontology."