When one thinks of our planet’s southernmost continent you probably don’t think of trees. You probably think of ice and snow and cold. Antarctica though was at one point habitable and everything from trees and flora to dinosaurs called it home. While no one will be getting any reclaimed wood from there it is interesting to know that not only did trees thrive there but their fossilized remains are still there.
Millions of years ago Antarctica was part of a landmass called Gondwana. 420 million years ago to be exact. Gondwana included Antarctica, Africa, Australia and South America as well as the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. It had a landmass of 39 million square miles. Eventually Gondwana and Laurasia drifted together to form Pangea around 200 million years ago.
At the time Antarctica was much further north meaning it had a much warmer climate. Tree life was common and was dominated by the Glossopteris genus of trees that could grow to 130 feet tall and had leaves larger than a person’s arm. These trees thrived until the Permian mass extinction about 250 million years ago which also killed between 70% and 90% of life on the planet and paved the way for the dinosaurs along with a variety of new tree and plant life. The continent was located on near the equator and featured a hot and dry climate that became a desert. As Gondwana broke up and Antarctica drifted south the climate cooled. Beech trees, ginkgoes and ferns became the dominant species until ice began to form around 40 million years ago and by 14 million years ago the continent was covered in ice.
The Permian mass extinction is an event that scientists are trying to understand today. It is believed to have been caused by an increase in greenhouse gases due to massive volcanic eruptions. With greenhouse gases rising on Earth understanding what will happen to the planet is critical to our survival.
Erik Gulbranson, a paleoecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is one such scientist and went fossil hunting in Antarctica on the Transantarctic Mountains to find fossilized tree remains. In 2016 he found one and hit the jackpot. The tree fossil is believed to be about 280 million years old. It was buried in ash which preserved it down to the cellular level. It is believed that the fungi in the wood mineralized even while the tree was still alive and very quickly at that, possibly turning the tree to stone within a matter of weeks.
In the area were other fossils of plant life dating from before and after the Permian mass extinction. The plant life has been preserved by the ash so well that some of the building blocks can still be extracted. This will not only shed life on what may have caused the mass extinction but also how the trees and flora were able survive the event and also how they survived at the extreme southern latitudes. Antarctica did have plant life until about 14 million years ago and would have looked similar to what Siberia looks like today.
Ancient trees were able to transition from season to season much quicker than modern day plants and trees. This was a survival mechanism owing to the extreme latitude and the sunny summers and pitch black winters. They were able to survive four months of continual darkness. The animals that called this area home also adapted.
While wood from Antarctica will probably never be sold on the market much less used as reclaimed wood it is interesting to see what we can learn from it. Trees are some of the oldest species on the planet and our survival is tied to them. They have much to teach us, both living and the long dead ones and we should heed the warnings that they are giving us. Today only fungi, moss, liverworts and three species of plants call the continent home and the growing season is only a few weeks long during the summer months but life will always find a way, with or without humans.