Journey to World’s Bottom

By Frank Otto

On his latest adventure, Ted Daeschler won’t have to keep an eye out for wolves or polar bears. That’s a welcome change.

“That’ll be very comforting,” he laughed.

For the first time, Daeschler, PhD, who serves as vice president of Collections and the Library of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, will head to Antarctica to seek out fossils dating back to a time before the dinosaurs.

Although he’s gone to the Arctic every other year since 1999, a new multi-year expedition funded by the National Sciences Foundation will allow Daeschler to explore potential sites at the other end of the world.

Ted Daeschler on an Arctic expedition
Ted Daeschler on an Arctic expedition

It’s there, in the rocky, dry, desert-like valleys between Antarctic glaciers that Daeschler will continue his work piecing together the path of evolution. Three sites are targeted for the expedition to explore, each containing sedimentary rock dating back to the Devonian Period, a time that ended approximately 120 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared.

It was a time when fish were diverse and abundant and fossils from that period (including fossils Daeschler discovered during his time in the Arctic) have provided important clues to how life adapted — and made the transition from the water to land.

For this expedition, Daeschler is again teaming with past collaborator Neil Shubin, of the University of Chicago, who helped find Tiktaalik roseae, a specialized fish that provided clues to life’s evolutionary transition out of the water. Adam Maloof, of Princeton University, and a pair of Australians, John Long, from Flinders University, and Tim Senden, of Australia National University, will also be on the expedition team.

Their research in Antarctica is funded for three years, including two field expeditions. This first trip begins in early December and will extend until mid-January. The second is slated for the winter of 2018–19.

“We’re looking at the distribution of vertebrates there and trying to find centers of evolutionary change,” Daeschler said. “Hopefully we’ll also find organisms new to science.”

Antarctica will be unlike anywhere Daeschler has been, and is unlike most places on this planet.

A paleontologist digging during one of Daeschler’s previous Arctic trips in Nunavut in Canada.
A paleontologist digging during one of Daeschler’s previous Arctic trips in Nunavut in Canada.

“This is the closest thing to being on Mars here on Earth,” Daeschler said. “There are no living things like birds or plants. There’s lichen and bacteria. That’s it.”

As such, the preparation for this trip will be more intense than the Arctic forays.

“The logistics are arranged from door to door. It’s really different from working in the Arctic, where we arranged everything ourselves,” Daeschler explained. “Equipment, gear, even food, we get supplied down there.”


Beginning Dec. 2, Daeschler will fly to Dallas. Then his flights will go to Australia and finally Christchurch in New Zealand, where the United States has its Antarctic staging place. There, the team will get outfitted with its personal gear and the critical outerwear.

“You basically only bring your own long underwear and socks,” Daeschler said.

Following that, they’ll take a military-style transport plane down to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. There, they’ll have a few days of training for working and moving around in Antarctica’s harsh environment. That includes learning how to camp out in the cold Antarctic conditions.

“They take you out somewhere near McMurdo Station, and have you bivouac, and say, ‘See you tomorrow morning,’” Daeschler said.

Once all of that training is complete, around Dec. 10, the expedition team will head to its targeted sites. Although the sites are 90 to 100 miles away from McMurdo Station, that will be relatively close when compared to some other scientific expeditions on the continent.

That said, it’s still no picnic. Wolves and polar bears may not be a threat, but the weather is more than a formidable foe. As such, the NSF requires all of its expeditions to take one of its “mountaineers,” effectively a guide familiar with the continent.

“They know how to survive down there,” Daeschler said. “So if we have to cross the ice and snow, he’s the guy who’s going to know how to keep us out of crevasses. Or if there are clouds that suggest a windstorm, he can tell us it’s coming.”

“He’s not a paleontologist, but we can teach him a little. It’s not hard,” he added with a laugh.

Daeschler will soon have explored in two of the harshest environments the Earth has to offer. But why travel so far to such inhospitable climates?

“When we are in the field we have this saying when the conditions get particularly uncomfortable: ‘If it were easy, somebody would have done it already,’” Daeschler explained. “If you’re willing to put that extra effort into it for the places where the geology is right, then it’ll be worth it for the discoveries because they could make a real difference.”


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