Frozen In Time

  • Grades: 6–8

On an ice-shattered mountain at the very bottom of the world, in cold so strong it can freeze exposed skin in a matter of seconds, a small party of college students comes face to face with a ghost.

In the steel-hard frozen ground, a demon comes into focus. It has sharp teeth, large eye sockets and a strange Elvis Presley pompadour-like crest on the top of its head. The ghost is a predatory dinosaur. It's a killer, a meat-eater and it's been resting here for more than 140 million years.

Welcome, friends, to Antarctica, a hostile and snowbound world atop the South Pole. What a strange place it is! Huge ice caps smother the land under miles of ice. There's more fresh water bound up in ice here than all the fresh water anywhere else on the planet. The average yearly temperature is nearly 40 degrees below zero. Winds howl continuously across the vast ice desert.

And now, there are dinosaurs here.

Dr. William Hammer of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois recently made his fourth trip to Antarctica with young college students who volunteered to come and dig fossils. Over the years, Dr. Hammer and his students have unearthed all kinds of Triassic animals from the rocks, but no dinosaurs. Then last year, within 400 miles of the South Pole and two-and-a-half miles up on the side of Antarctica's tallest mountain, they hit paydirt. Did they ever!

The dinosaur that first came to light during those 24-hour-long summer days was given the name Cryolophosaurus, which means "frozen crested lizard." It was a brand new species of dinosaur. In January of last year (January is summer in Antarctica), Dr. Hammer and his students set up camp at 9,000 feet above sea level on Mt. Kirkpatrick. They'd spent weeks digging, classifying and packing up 245-million-year-old reptiles and amphibians, and they were thinking of moving to somewhere else on the mountain.

Then a call came over the short-wave radio from a volcano expert, David Elliot of Ohio State University. Elliot said he had found Jurassic-age rocks, about 200 million years old, much higher up on the mountain at 12,500 feet — 3,500 feet higher than Dr. Hammer's camp. And there was something else. There appeared to be fossil deposits there, too. Hammer's scruffy fossil-hunting crew ate a chilly breakfast and climbed for an hour to reach the 12,500-foot level. There they discovered the frozen remains of an ancient riverbank, full of clay and volcanic ash now turned to stone. In the stone were fossils all right. Lots of them. They were dinosaur bones, the first ever discovered in Antarctica. But the bones would have to be jackhammered out of the frozen ground. The only problem was that the jackhammer was broken.

Some days later, in brilliant icy sunshine, a huge LC-130 military transport plane flew in from the American supply and research station at McMurdo Bay, far to the north. The plane landed on the hard, windblown Antarctic ice sheet and rolled up to the foot of the mountain. Dr. Hammer and his volunteers watched as the enormous plane's cargo hatch opened wide. They looked and looked again. The mammoth plane was completely empty except for one wooden box. It was the jackhammer the crew needed.

The powerful tool did its work well. Soon, half the skeleton of a strange new dinosaur came to light. It was a 25-foot long meat-eating predator. On its forehead was a large crest, like a pompadour hairdo. Sort of like the way Elvis Presley use to comb his hair. Elvis? Yes, what a perfect nickname for the new dinosaur.

There was something else strange about Elvis. At the back of the jaw and in the throat area, several large broken bones were present. The bones were similar to the bones of a prosauropod dinosaur (sort of a miniature Apatosaurus) also found with Elvis. It appeared to Dr. Hammer that Elvis had killed or was scavenging the prosauropod when it got the bones stuck in its throat. Apparently, Elvis choked to death.

When Dr. Hammer had made the call for the jackhammer, word spread like wildfire all through the remote scientific research stations scattered around the huge frozen continent. This was exciting news, and it also electrified the paleontology community worldwide as well.

The discovery of a new dinosaur at the bottom of Earth meant that dinosaurs ruled the entire world. They lived everywhere, from the poles to the equator and on every continent.

This important find also provided more strong evidence for the theory that the world's continents had once been joined together as one gigantic land mass called Pangea (pan-gee-ah). In the early Jurassic era 200 million years ago, Pangea itself was splitting apart into two separate continents called Laurasia to the north and Gondwana to the south. Antarctica was a good-size chunk of Gondwana. Attached to it were Australia, South America, Africa and India. Many animals that lived on Gondwana could move throughout most of the land. That's why many Triassic and Jurassic fossils that are found in Antarctica are also found in South America, Africa and Australia, even though they have been separate continents for more than 100 million years.

So Elvis is very significant. But he needed a proper scientific name and Dr. Hammer, as mentioned earlier, came up with a great one: Cryolophosaurus (cry-o-lo-fuh-sor-us).

Elvis needed a home, too. His bones and the many other fossils found on Mount Kirkpatrick were shipped back to Augustana College in Illinois. Once Elvis is thoroughly studied and described, the bones will be sent to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and placed on display.

Next year, Professor Hammer will leave the ivy-covered walls of the college and travel to Antarctica again. He thought that once dinosaurs had been discovered in Antarctica, scientific funding would dry up for new expeditions. But the National Science Foundation thought that more work in Antarctica would be valuable, and Dr. Hammer was granted $260,000 for a fifth expedition.

So it's back to 40-below and frozen baked beans...where it takes two hours to boil a cup of tea, make pot of soup or cook up some freeze-dried eggs.

At night, in their tiny tents, with moist breath condensing as ice on all surfaces, the scientists and students will sleep fitfully in the sub-zero chill, dreaming of the time 200 million years ago when dinosaurs inhabited this land when it was warm and ice-free. When it was a lush green tropical paradise. When Antarctica was perfect for dinosaurs.

Article reprinted courtesy of Dinosaurus Magazine. All rights reserved.

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  • Subjects:
    Archaeology and Anthropology, Paleontology and Fossils
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