Neil Shubin, the Robert Bensley Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, is a veteran of the Arctic, but this year he and five colleagues will spend their Christmas holiday and celebrate the New Year – in a quiet way – at the other end of the world, Antarctica.
They will be looking for fossils. It will be zero to 10 degrees, about a mile above sea level, high winds, limited shelter, at the margin of where a helicopter can travel. “It’s going to be physically hard,” he said, but he and colleagues are excited about “the adventure of it.”
Shubin, a paleontologist, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, author of two popular science books: “Your Inner Fish,” named best book of 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences, and “The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body” (2013). He has discovered some of the most important creatures in the fossil record and uses their anatomy to explore hypotheses about anatomical transformations. His most famous discovery, the 375-million-year-old Tiktaalik roseae fossil, is a key transitional form between fish and land animals.
We spoke with him about his pending adventure.
UChicagoMed: Where did the idea come from to work in Antarctica?
Neil Shubin: In the hunt for key fossils in the history of life we look for places in the world that have three things—rocks of the right age to answer the question we’re interested in, rocks of the right type to preserve high quality fossils, and rocks that are exposed on the surface. These criteria led us to the Canadian Arctic to find the fishapod, Tiktaalik, in 2004 in rocks about 375 million years old.
We wanted to push the search farther back in time. Those criteria led us to the Dry Valleys and nunataks (mountains that poke through the ice) of Antarctica. There, rocks about 10 million years older are exposed extremely well. The winds form a kind of rain shadow, creating one of the driest climates on Earth. These areas have rock exposed adjacent to the ice. So we’ll have lots of good Devonian Age rocks, from the right kind of ancient river and stream environments that are very well exposed. To top it off, other teams in the area have found fossils at several sites. So we’re walking into a very promising area.
Who else is on your team?
Ted Daeachler, my co-PI on this project has been my collaborator on the Tiktaalik project. Adam Maloof (Princeton) is a great field geologist who will help us study and map the rocks themselves. John Long (Flinders, Australia) is expert on Devonian fish and has visited some of these areas before. Tim Senden (Australian National University) is expert on imaging, and Sune Tamm is a professional mountaineer and ice-rescue expert.
Has anyone on your team been to Antarctica before?
Yes: Sune has been a mountaineer on a number of scientific expeditions and John has worked some of the sites before.
How long did it take to devise and organize this adventure?
We first had the idea to work here in 2004 and sent off a proposal to the NSF. We found Tiktaalik that year, so were committed to the North for about the next 10 years. It is too hard to do both North and South polar expeditions in the same year, so we deferred this one until we were satisfied that we’ve accomplished what we needed in the Arctic.
We applied to NSF Polar Programs (the home of the US Antarctic Program) a few years back and began planning in earnest only this past summer/fall. The organization part happened fast because it occurs with the assistance of the US Antarctic Program and their contractors at Lockheed. In the Arctic we had to bring our own food and gear. Here, it is provided for us.
Where specifically are you planning to go?
We’ll work about 60-80 miles out of McMurdo Station, on bedrock, not on ice.
How will you get there and how do you travel once you arrive?
We travel from Chicago to Los Angeles to Christchurch, New Zealand. There, the NSF has a station that outfits expeditions with clothing and does some training. From Christchurch we take an Air Force plane, hopefully a jet, for the voyage to McMurdo Station. We’ll stay in McMurdo for five days to a week gearing up, planning menus and training. We’ll also do a reconnaissance flight of the areas to determine campsites. The sites are about an hour’s helicopter ride from McMurdo. We’ve planned on three camps.
How different is it from Ellesmere Island?
The fossils will be older in time. We should find all kinds of fish from sharks to bony fish that are close relatives of limbed creatures. That’s what drew us there: the possibility of finding early sharks and other kinds of fish that tell of the early evolution of very basic skeletal architectures.
It is at a higher altitude than Ellesmere, so the sites will be drier, colder, and more solar (if that is possible).
What special precautions do you have to make for a trip like this?
Each field team member has to pass a series of medical and dental tests to work down there.
I’m running the stairs in my high rise to train for the 1km hike up the rocks each day.
How scary is this?
The scariest thing is being away and missing the holidays with my loved ones.
What do you expect to find?
This period contains the early evolution of many groups of fish, including the branch of the evolutionary tree that led to us. So, we are likely to find a number of important creatures.
What do you intensely hope, but only marginally expect, to find?
A well-preserved early shark would be amazing. Because their skeletons are mostly cartilage, they tend not to fossilize well. But, we’ll see…
How much of the continent is accessible and exposed, rather than being covered with thick ice?
About 98 percent of Antarctica is covered by a mile-thick sheet of ice. The Dry Valleys, however, are one of the world’s most extreme deserts, with extremely low humidity and surrounding mountains that block the flow of ice from nearby glaciers. The bedrock is extremely well preserved.
Does climate change open up untapped inland areas to explore?
It is hard to say whether climate change has affected the exposures on the nunataks.
Are there specific prehistoric periods you plan to focus on?
The Late Devonian, rocks about 385 million years old.
What would be your dream find? Anything comparable to Tiktaalik?
Yes. We’d love to find a cousin of Tiktaalik. It is highly possible something like that is lying there waiting for us.
What will this adventure cost, how unpredictable is that, and how is it being funded?
It is funded through NSF and, honestly, I’ve no idea how much the logistics cost. I’m imagining it is not insignificant.