Wood Fossils Show Ancient Antarctica was home to Exotic Forests

Trees in Antarctica? The idea of forests at the South Pole may be somewhat of an unusual idea to the cold climates Antarctica boasts; but new research suggests that tropical trees once grew in the region. An article published by the Huffington Post earlier this month explained how the recent discovery of wood fossils suggests that Antarctica was once home to carpeted forests.

Let’s rewind 250 million years to the Permian and early Triassic period. The world was alot warmer than it is today, so the idea may not be that foreign. The question, said Patricia Ryberg, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, is how plants coped with photosynthesizing constantly for part of the year and then not at all when the winter sun set. Since Antarctica was still at high latitude, the region experienced round-the-clock darkness in the winter and 24/7 light in the summer.

A fossilized tree trunk protrudes through ice near Antarctica’s Mount Achernar. | Patricia Ryberg

Ryberg and her colleagues gathered samples of leaf impressions and discovered mats of leaves, implying signs of a deciduous forest. What’s interesting about that finding is that samples of fossil wood were also taken and tree rings were examined to reveal that the trees looked evergreen.   “Now we have leaves that suggest a deciduous habit and fossil wood that is suggesting an evergreen habit, so we have a bit of a contradiction going on,” Ryberg said.

Follow-up studies analyzing carbon molecules in the fossil wood also gives both deciduous and evergreen answers, Ryberg said. The implication is that ancient Antarctic forests may have been a mix of deciduous and evergreen.

Tropical trees growing in the Arctic? Not so unusual after all.

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