On the shores of a lake in Antarctica, a large, carnivorous and flightless bird stalks its prey amid lush, temperate rainforest.
This is not a fantasy, but a scene that actually took place, sometime in the mid Eocene epoch, some 25 million years before the Antarctic plate would split apart from Patagonia and begin its descent into the frozen south.
And it’s a scene that scientists can piece together now, thanks to the discoveries of a young Chilean scientist on Antarctica’s King George Island.
Héctor Mansilla, current head of the Paleobiology Laboratory of the Chilean Government’s Antarctic Institute (INACH), found over sixty footprints of prehistoric birds, in what is known as trace fossils, or ichnofossils.
Mansilla described the study of trace fossils as “really important because it is a science that is forgotten,” and which in this case, “delivered very valuable information for reconstruction the Antarctic environment of 48 million years ago.”
The Chilean scientist traveled to King George Island in 2009 at the invitation of INACH paleobiologist, doctor Marcelo Leppe, to participate in his project of studying the connections between Patagonia and Antarctica.
“Among the places that we had to explore was Fossil Hill and it was that place which produced this discovery of more than 60 pieces found this year,” Mansilla said.
Included in the footprints were those of the aforementioned carnivorous Fororracoide, as well as those of an Avipeda – the first evidence of this species to be discovered in Antarctica – and the Uhangrichnus, a duck-like bird which had webbing halfway up its toes.
But the fossil discoveries were not just limited to birdlife.
“We also found the remains of stems of Equisetites, which are plants that live in this type of environment, and also undulations, or ripple marks, left by the water in the sediment and by raindrops,” Mansilla said.
“The ripple marks are the most important characteristic, since the undulations are very close together, indicating that the energy was very low in the place, and that is was probably a lake.
So what did the Antarctica of 48 million years ago look like? Something like the verdant forests of Chile’s Lakes Region does today, says the Chilean scientist.
Mansilla’s work has recently been published in Antarctic Science journal. To see the article, click here.