University of Washington grad student shares secrets of ancient Antarctica

March 20, 2012

By Tom Corrigan

Issaquah High School student Max McDermott (left) examines the fossil left in the Antarctic by an ammonite, a distant relative of the modern octopus or squid, and brought to the school by University of Washington graduate student Adam Huttenlocker. By Tom Corrigan

During more routine fossil digs, the field tools of his profession often include brushes and other delicate equipment, University of Washington graduate student Adam Huttenlocker said.

Huttenlocker is also part of the Antarctica Outreach program of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle. Early this month, he brought a few items representative of his finds during two months in Antarctica to Issaquah High School.

Huttenlocker’s presentation didn’t directly relate to the topic under study in the classroom of science teacher Bryan Robles. Still, Robles said the visit from the young scientist was another chance for his students to see how science is done.

Huttenlocker talked before and during his presentation about setting aside subtle forms of fossil extraction during his time at the bottom of the world.

For a fossil dig in Antarctica, for cutting into some of the hardest rock on the planet, with temperatures around 40 below zero, the tools used are jackhammers and diamond-blade rock saws. How do you not break a fossil possibly a few hundred million years old when excavating it with a jackhammer?

“Not breaking the fossil is not always an option,” Huttenlocker said.

During his trip to Antarctica, he spent most of his time in a temporary camp in the Transantarctic Mountains. The range essentially bisects the Antarctic continent, he said, and is a prime spot for hunting for fossils. Transportation was by plane or helicopter.

Because of the extremely low temperatures, Antarctica is exceedingly dry. There is no erosion, so that leaves the rock untouched. Some of the more common fossils found in the Antarctica include lystrosaurus, a mammal-like reptile that lived about 250 million years ago, according to Huttenlocker. Despite its name, the animal was not a dinosaur. Evidence of lystrosaurus can be found all over the world. Huttenlocker brought a replica of the animal’s skull to Issaquah High.

He also showed off part of a large, very heavy fossil found in Antarctica by another professor at the University of Washington. The full-sized fossil would be about the size of a car tire, according to Huttenlocker. The fossil represents the shell of an ammonite, an animal related to the modern squid or octopus. Basically, an ammonite was an octopus that lived inside a shell, he said.

During their time in Antarctica, Huttenlocker believes he and his team may have found a new species of ancient amphibian. They won’t know for sure for a while as the fossils still are being studied. His thinking is that the animal may have lived about 235 million years ago.

On the Web

Learn more about fossils in the Antarctic at Search for the National Science Foundation article, “Dawn of an Age.”

“Just imagine a salamander about 10 feet long,” Huttenlocker said.

He began his visit in Antarctica at McMurdo Station, which he said has been described as the “New York” of the Antarctica. He said a lot of people ask him how he dealt with polar bears, but there are no polar bears in the Antarctica. The animals that do live there include seals, penguins and birds. The latter can get very aggressive, Huttenlocker said, diving down and unexpectedly snatching food right out of your hand.

Getting close to Antarctica wildlife can be tricky. Rules say visitors, who are almost exclusively scientists, can get within only so many feet of the native animals. One way around that rule is to lie down and let the animals come to you.

Huttenlocker has done other digs in areas such as Wyoming, Colorado and South Africa. He said that surprisingly the fossils in the Antarctic and in South Africa were very similar.

During his visit to Issaquah High, he didn’t have time for a planned question-and-answer session with students. Robles noted this was Huttenlocker’s first time in front of a high school class. But Robles also said students reacted well to the presentation. The next day, they remembered quite a bit of information from the talk.

“I think it was very positive,” Robles said.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at www.issaquahpress.

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  1. News & Related Media | Adam K. Huttenlocker on January 16th, 2013 1:05 pm

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