Chilean expedition discovers fossil “treasure trove” in Antarctica

Scientists from the Universidad de Chile find Cretaceous-era remains that revealed a very different climate from today.

Expedition to Antarctica
The expedition to the Antarctica included a multi-disciplinary team of professionals. (Photo courtesy of INACH)

A team of multidisciplinary scientists from the Universidad de Chile and the Museum of Natural History in Santiago discovered a treasure trove of fossils in Antarctica, including the remains of marine reptiles from the age of the dinosaurs: the plesiosaurus and the mosasaurus.

The discovery occurred in rock strata dating to the Cretaceous period, some 70 million years ago, while the specialists were visiting James Ross island, in the extreme north-east of the Antarctic Peninsula.

“These discoveries reveal climatic conditions and ecosystems that are very different from those found in Antarctica today. It’s thought that the White Continent used to have characteristics similar to those found today in subtropical zones,” said expedition leader David Rubilar.

Rubilar, of the Museum of Natural History, said that the expedition also found abundant remains of giant sharks, mollusks (such as the nautilus, which today lives in warm climates), ammonites, and petrified trunks of ancient coastal forests.

One of the most exciting discoveries were the plesiosaurus remains, including vertebrae, ribs and parts of the marine reptile’s fins. It also marked the first time that scientists discovered remains of the Elasmosauride family, marine reptiles that could reach up to 50 feet (15 m) in length.

Researchers also discovered teeth, ribs and vertebrae of the mosasaurus, a prehistoric reptile that could reach lengths of more than 32 feet (10 m) and is related to the current day Komodo dragon.

Universidad de Chile paleontologist Alexander Vargas added that one of the project’s main objectives is to “compare the fossilized organisms in Antarctica with similar remains discovered in Chile, in order to discover ancient bio-geographic relationships between our country and the White Continent.”

The fossils will be prepared and studied at laboratories at the Universidad de Chile and the Museum of Natural History, in order to determine whether any of the remains belong to species that have yet to discovered.

Scientists can already say with certainty, however, that they discovered “several new species, such as cartilaginous fish, similar to the elephantfish (Callorhinchus callorynchus),” according to Vargas.

Another important success of the expedition was the discovery of ancient sharks in the Cretalamna and Centrophoroides genus, whose presence in Antarctica was unknown until now.

“We have discovered a treasure, which taken as a whole will allow us to explain the natural history of this part of the world,” Rubilar said.

The project was part of the 48th Scientific Expedition to Antarctica organized by the Chilean Antarctic Institute (Inach), which financed the initiative together with the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (Conicyt).