"They are the first to be found even though scientific expeditions have been visiting the Dry Valleys since their discovery during the first Scott expedition in 1902-1903," said Lewis. Robert Falcon Scott was a British Antarctic explorer who perished during an attempt to the first to reach the South Pole in 1912.
For Ashworth the fossils are a scientific treasure trove.
He said he was particularly struck that some species of diatoms and mosses are indistinguishable from living creatures. Today, these species occur throughout the world, except in Antarctica.
"To be able to identify living species amongst the fossils is phenomenal. To think that modern counterparts have survived 14 million years on Earth without any significant changes in the details of their appearances is striking. It must mean that these organisms are so well-adapted to their habitats that in spite of repeated climate changes and isolation of populations for millions of years they have not become extinct but have survived" said Ashworth, the principal paleoecologist in the research.
What makes the fossils especially valuable is that their context is known following years of detailed mapping of ancient glacial deposits in the western Olympus and Asgard mountain ranges of Antarctica by Marchant and Lewis. As part of their research, they discovered volcanic ashes which have been dated at Lamont-Doherty geochronology labs by researchers Sidney Hemming and Malka Machlus, coauthors in the study.
Lewis added that the fossils are the best dated so far to come from Antarctica.
The fossil location today high in the mountains is a completely frozen landscape.
|Contact: Peter West|
National Science Foundation