What do icebreakers, helicopters, and bright red down parkas with fur-lined hoods all have in common? If you are a fossil hunter in Antarctica like Abagael West, these are all necessary supplies for her job. To the envy of most people, her job is to explore one of the most remote places on the planet in search of 75 million year old fossils that represent a time when this barren, desolate place was warm and teeming with life.
West is a graduate student at Columbia University and the America Museum of Natural History who this past winter joined The Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project (AP3), a 12 person team of paleontologists from places like the Carnegie Museum, University of Queensland, and UT Austin who have gone on multiple expeditions over the past several years to explore the fossil-bearing rocks of Antarctica. I met up with her in her office at the American Museum of Natural History in the middle of Manhattan, an admittedly stark contrast to her recent Antarctic surroundings, and asked her to recount some of her experiences chasing down one of the last great fossil frontiers.
It all started on the first day of February this year. The team met up in Punta Arenas, Chile—the jumping off point for the US Antarctic Program (USAP). West and the other paleontologists spent time in Punta Arenas getting ready for their sea voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula, making sure they didn’t forget anything they’d need on their month long camping excursion and meeting their research and support staff.
“We got extreme cold weather gear from the USAP, things like gortex pants, fluffy snow boots, wellingtons which were useful for getting on and off the boat,” West said. They were also issued the famous red USAP puffy jackets, gloves, and hats. With the gear set and the food packed up (mostly dry goods but also an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables) the team was ready to get on the Nathaniel Palmer, the larger of the two USAP icebreaker ships.
The trip from Chile to the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula was about 5 days, with 1 of those each way crossing the infamous rough seas of the Drake Passage. Seasickness? “You get used to it,” West said, also noting Dramamine was a big help during this portion of the journey.
Once the journey was over, they were all dropped off on the desolate ice-covered landscapes of James Ross Island and Vega Island—locations where fossils have previously been found but still hold many more secrets of a late Cretaceous shallow sea. Every day the paleontologists had to hike more than 6 miles just to get to the fossil sites, but their trip was more than worth it.
“In these rocks we found birds, fish, sharks, and plenty of marine reptiles,” West described, “and other cool fossils we found were interesting plants, ammonites, bivalves, and sea urchins.” Although it wasn’t too cold when the team was there during the Antarctic summer (around 40 degrees Fahrenheit), the harsh windy environment of Vega Island makes it ripe for erosion, which is ideal for revealing fossils. “Every day we would go back, there would be something new to find.”
During the Cretaceous this rock was formed in a shallow sea—meaning there are loads of marine fossils, and especially marine reptiles like plesiosaurs. “Big chunks of plesiosaur are weathering out all over the place,” said West, who then explained they were lucky because they did not have to carry this material all the way back to camp when they found it because they had a helicopter at their disposal.