A lost world has been found in Antarctica, preserved just the way it was when it was frozen in time some 14 million years ago. The fossils of plants and animals high in the mountains is an extremely rare find in the continent, one that also gives a glimpse of a what could be there in a century or two as the planet warms. A team working in an ice-free region has discovered the trove of ancient life in what must have been the last traces of tundra on the interior of the southernmost continent before temperatures began to drop relentlessly.An abrupt and dramatic climate cooling of 8°C in 200,000 years forced the extinction of tundra plants and insects and brought interior Antarctica into a perpetual deep-freeze from which it has never emerged, though may do again as a result of climate change. An international team led by Prof David Marchant, at Boston University and Profs Allan Ashworth and Adam Lewis, at North Dakota State University, combined evidence from glaciers, from the preserved ecology, volcanic ashes and modelling to reveal the full extent of the big freeze in a part of Antarctica called the Dry Valleys. The new insight in the understanding of Antarctica's climatic history, which saw it change from a climate like that of South Georgia to one similar to that seen today in Mars, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We've documented the timing and the magnitude of a tremendous change in Antarctic climate," said Prof Marchant. "The fossil finds allow us to examine Antarctica as it existed just prior to climate cooling at 13.
9 million years ago. It is a unique window into the past. To study these deposits is akin to strolling across the Dry Valleys 14.1 million years ago." The discovery of lake deposits with perfectly preserved fossils of mosses, diatoms and minute crustacea called ostracods is particularly exciting, noted Prof Lewis. "They are the first to be found even though scientific expeditions have been visiting the Dry Valleys since their discovery during the first Scott expedition in 1902-1903," he said.