Digging for Dinosaurs
Associate Professor, Geological Sciences
“Antarctica is one of the next great frontiers for discovery. We have an imperative to understand it better.” —Julia Clarke
Right now, an international team of researchers is digging around Antarctica for evidence that the now-frozen continent may have been the starting point for species that roam the Earth 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,” says Julia Clarke, associate professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the Jackson School of Geosciences and one of several researchers on the team. “The Earth has undergone remarkable changes, but through all of them, life and climate and geologic processes have been linked. A single new discovery from this time period in the high southern latitudes can change what we know in transformative ways.”
Clarke researches avian dinosaurs — birds — and why they survived while non-avian dinosaurs became extinct. She hopes any new species identified by the Antarctic research team may unlock the evolutionary success of birds and explain why some “dinosaurs” still fly among us today.
We talked to her via email from the icebreaker that brought her to Antarctica about what this trek could contribute to our understanding of evolution.
Is it difficult doing research in such a remote area, like Antarctica?
I like those challenges. I also like that you have a higher probability of finding an animal that has never been seen before — what we call “new to science.” I go to places to sample time periods or parts of the world that are very key to understanding a question I want to answer. And rock deposits of that age don’t exists many places.
How do you know where to find the fossils?
We are always building upon the work of prior generations. Not only are these rocks the right age, but birds and other dinosaur remains have been found in this area. In 2011, with only 16 days, we found new dinosaur remains and other fossils that were new to science. We are confident we will make some key new discoveries on this longer trip.
How do you decide what’s worth digging when it’s covered in ice?
Where we work it is not ice covered. We wait until nearly the end of the austral summer so the maximum amount of rocks are exposed. There are glaciers all around our sites but we can’t find fossils where we can’t see the rock.
“People can’t believe how simple the actual tool kit is. Fundamentally, we walk around all day looking for the tiniest glimpse of bone.”
You focus on birds, but other members of the team are experts in mammals, plants and other areas. What is your goal as a team?
The question we are trying to answer, at its most general, is: “What drives biodiversity on Earth through time, at different latitudes and at different parts of the world?” The world we have in Antarctica up until 31 million years ago is an ice-free high latitude. There was rich fauna and flora in these high-latitude regions during this key time interval when an estimated 70 percent of life on land went extinct.
Why did that happen? Paleontology gives us a deep time view. Understanding history is important to avoid future mistakes.
What is your ideal discovery during this expedition?
The ideal discovery that I would make on this trip is a whole bunch of bird skeletons, perfectly preserved and smiling at me from the rocks, that are going to give insight into the timing of origin of these major groups of birds we have today. Those include things like parrots and ducks and all these different things that make our world what it is today.
What insights can be gained by learning more about the origin of birds?
I work on how evolutionary innovations deep in the past have shaped the world we have today. Birds are the most species-rich group of land-dwelling vertebrates. They are by all measures “successful.” There are twice as many species of birds today compared to mammals. That is an amazing number of terrestrial animal species. But there has been a lot of controversy and a lot of unknowns about how that came to be. These fossils have the potential to really give insight into that story.
As you embark on this expedition, how does it feel?
There is nothing like that moment where you don’t know what you are going to discover. Antarctica is one of the next great frontiers for discovery. We have an imperative to understand it better.
What role does creativity play in your work?
Science is a creative enterprise, and that can sound like we just go around making stuff up, but it isn’t. It’s asking a question that no one has asked before. We all got into this business driven by curiosity. I tell my students, you have to pair that sense of curiosity with specific questions. That means we had to have questions that will be answered by this research.
Whether you call it creativity or you call it innovation, that’s what I want to teach my students. That is an organizing principal of my career.
Leading the team are paleontologists from The University of Texas at Austin, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Ohio University and the American Museum of Natural History. Other collaborators include scientists from museums and universities across the U.S., Australia and South Africa. This monthlong field expedition to the James Ross Island area of Antarctica — ending March 24, 2016 — is part of the Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project, or AP3, a research initiative funded by the National Science Foundation.