280-Million-Year-Old Fossil Forest Discovered in … Antarctica

By Stephanie Pappas

Antarctica wasn’t always a land of ice. Millions of years ago, when the continent was still part of a huge Southern Hemisphere landmass called Gondwana, trees flourished near the South Pole.

Now, newfound, intricate fossils of some of these trees are revealing how the plants thrived — and what forests might look like as they march northward in today’s warming world.

“Antarctica preserves an ecologic history of polar biomes that ranges for about 400 million years, which is basically the entirety of plant evolution,” said Erik Gulbranson, a paleoecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

It’s hard to look at Antarctica’s frigid landscape today and imagine lush forests. To find their fossil specimens, Gulbranson and his colleagues have to disembark from planes landed on snowfields, then traverse glaciers and brave bone-chilling winds. But from about 400 million to 14 million years ago, the southern continent was a very different, and much greener place. The climate was warmer, though the plants that survived at the low southern latitudes had to cope with winters of 24-hour-per-day darkness and summers during which the sun never set, just as today.

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