Jan. 30, 2004

Commentary by
Roger Martin

Antarctica's forests hold secrets of long-ago eras

by Roger Martin

Trees once grew 70 feet tall in Antarctica -- even with darkness blanketing the continent six months at a stretch. They clumped in forests at least as dense as those found today in temperate climates.

Seed-bearing ferns, with leaves shaped like tongues, grew in those forests.

The roots of some of the trees were perforated with empty chambers, a useful wrinkle when living in bogs or swamps. Fossils from 200 million to 300 million years ago show a fungus growing in the roots. The tree types have gone extinct, but not the fungus, called white pocket rot.

Antarctica, a continent about 9,000 feet above sea level, the highest and coldest desert in the world, once had a climate something like that of Kansas today.

This picture I am reporting has been assembled from thousands of fossils retrieved from the 5 percent of Antarctica that is not buried under a couple of miles of ice.

Two of the detectives assembling the clues into a picture are Tom and Edie Taylor, University of Kansas professors of ecology and evolutionary biology and curators of the Natural History Museum.

Because of the Taylors, KU has one of the largest collections of fossil plants from Antarctica in the world.

And they just dug another 8,300 pounds of petrified peat and fossil-bearing rock out of the continent. It was his ninth, and her seventh, expedition to Earth's deepest deep freeze.

Antarctica will kill you not just with its cold but its wind, Taylor says. It killed British explorer Robert Falcon Scott in the early 1900s. He still had scientific samples on his sled when the tent he and two companions had huddled in was dug from a snowy grave.

On one trip, the Taylors were dropped in by helicopter and right away were fighting a blizzard. They decided they had to keep moving or get inside their tents and sleeping bags. So they kept moving. A day and a half later, they were picked up.

Why conduct research in a place that might kill you? Because the fossil plants from the Triassic and Permian periods are so beautifully preserved.

They seem to have drowned in silica-rich water. The water filled up the plants' cells and the spaces in between. The water evaporated, but the minerals remained.

"All the cells are preserved," Edie says. "It's as if you turned a compost heap in your back yard to stone. The plant details are incredible."

The Taylors gather leaves, seeds, stems, roots and trunks of trees. Every part informs them. The seeds and cones tell how a group of plants evolved and how they're related to each other. The leaves may give clues about how some plants survive in the dark.

Beyond that, the thrill of finding novelties keeps the Taylors coming back to Antarctica. At one site, there are 99 intact petrified tree stumps in beautiful shape, Edie says.

When you break open a rock, Tom says, you lay eyes on what no one else has seen -- one more pinpoint detail about the life of a world that, except for a fungus here and there, has vanished.


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