Newly-found fossils reveal Antarctica had lush forests before Dinosaurs existed

Antarctica—the ‘inhospitable’ white Continent that we know today, was once a surface covered with leafy subtropical forests full of palm trees, ferns, and conifers.

Just over 50 million years ago, the frozen continent looked very different from what we see today.

If mankind could travel to the past and visit Antarctica, we wouldn’t need to wear thermal and waterproof clothing as current expeditions do since the temperatures would be warm and pleasant.

Now, a group of researchers has discovered more evidence of what Antarctica looked like in the distant past as they have found fossil fragments from 13 trees that grew at the end of the Permian Period, before Dinosaurs.

The discovery was made by Erik Gulbranson and John Isbell from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) who were exploring the continents’ Transantarctic Mountains. By the end of their journey, the scientists discovered fossilized parts of 13 trees.

The discovery confirms one more time that the now-frozen continent was once covered in lush forests and teeming with life, most likely when it was still part of the supercontinent Gondwana that spanned the whole of the Southern Hemisphere.

Erik Gulbranson, paleoecologist and visiting assistant professor at UWM, examines some of the fossilized polar trees he recovered from Antarctica. Image Credit: Troye Fox, UWM Photo Services

Scientists are convinced that massive forests covered the entire continents at the end of the Permian Period, the geological era before first dinosaurs.

“People have known about the fossils in Antarctica since the 1910-12 Robert Falcon Scott expedition. Nevertheless, most of Antarctica is still unexplored today. Sometimes, you might be the first person to ever climb a certain mountain,” Gulbranson said.

The so-called Permian Period came to an end some 251 million years ago in what is considered history’s greatest mass extinction, as our planet rapidly shifted from icehouse to greenhouse conditions.

It is believed that than 90 percent of species on Earth disappeared, including the polar forests scientists found evidence of.

A 280-million-year-old tree stump still attached to its roots in Antarctica. Image Credit: Erik Gulbranson

Since the lush Antarctic tree grew at polar latitudes were plants cannot grow today, researchers believe the trees that once grew there were an extremely species. Experts are now trying to understand why the forests went extinct.

“This ancient forest is a glimpse of life before the extinction, and this can help us understand what caused the event,” explained Gulbranson.

Scientists explain that the frosts that once grew on the Antarctic continent were used to conditions unlike anywhere else on the planet, having to survive through polar extremes of endless light, and total darkness, which, according to experts, is another reason why its worth studying why they went extinct.

“There isn’t anything like that today. These trees could turn their growing cycles on and off like a light switch. We know the winter shutoff happened right away, but we don’t know how active they were during the summertime and whether they could force themselves into dormancy while it was still light out,” Gulbranson said.


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