Feature Stories

Remains of the Day

The sun never set. Sally Walker, a paleontologist at UGA, could walk outside the scientific research station any time, day or night, into a dazzling world of dry valleys and vistas of ice. But the sun, circling the sky, was always visible on the surface of the cold Earth.

Welcome to Antarctica, bottom of the world and home to an intriguing mystery that has baffled researchers for years. In frigid waters off the continental coast, there are large numbers of species that flourish, from bizarre serpent starfish to a group of microscopic creatures called foraminifera or forams. And yet, weirdly, there is little evidence of any fossil creatures in seafloor sediments.

Why? That's the question, but finding the answers is intriguing a team, of which Walker is a principal investigator. The research group, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, isn't simply wondering about ancient remains of tiny, ice-loving creatures. Answers may help explain everything from the evolution of Antarctic ecosystems to reasons for global warming.

"One of the main questions is how ice affects the presence of fossil invertebrates on the Antarctic seafloor," said Walker. "But the processes involved are very complex, and unraveling them will take more than a single approach."

Indeed, Walker is working with two veterans of Antarctic research: Molly Miller of Vanderbilt University and Sam Bowser from the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center. The team was in Antarctica from October to December 2008, during the continent's "summer," though that's a relative term, because wind chills at the team's research outpost often reached 20 degrees below zero.
Walker, in UGA's department of geology, part of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, was making her first trip to the frigid continent, but the new research fit right into work on which she's spent a lifetime: taphonomy, the study of the process of fossilization.

From a research site called New Harbor, the team is able under much better circumstances to delve into the abiding mystery of why there are few signs of fauna in the fossil records from cores taken beneath the ice in the bay. The team's future findings could have widespread significance, according to Tom Wagner, program manager of Antarctic Earth Sciences in the NSF's Office of Polar Programs, which is funding the research.

"It's important information because it would tell us about past ecosystems while providing another perspective on climate change," Wagner told The Antarctic Sun, NSF's online news source for information on science in that icy continent. "It could be that [fossils] aren't preserved, but it could also mean that we just don't know how to interpret the records that we have. And that's what makes this project so exciting-it could lead to a total reappraisal of Antarctica's past."

Published Friday,