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At Low Ebb
 
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Braving the harsh conditions of the Beardmore Camp. Click for larger image.

While Case and Martin were uncovering their carnivorous dinosaur, a research team led by William Hammer of Augustana College was braving the harsh conditions thousands of miles away near Antarctica's Beardmore Glacier. Hammer's team discovered fossils of a primitive sauropod, a plant eater.

Credit: Andy Sajor, National Science Foundation


At Low Ebb

Image showing a participant at the Pacific Educational Conference in Pohnpei. Click for larger image.
A map of Antarctica showing the locations of recent dinosaur finds on the Antarctic Peninsula and near the Beardmore Glacier.

Credit: Alex Jeon, National Science Foundation
As the many paleontologists supported by the National Science Foundation can attest, spotting fossil remains is only the first step in accurately recreating a creature that has been dead for many millions of years. Categorizing it and eventually concluding you've found something new requires far more than the ability to recognize an ancient bone lying on a frozen beach.

In late November 2003, Judd Case, a professor of biology at Saint Mary's College of California, and James E. Martin, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, boarded the Laurence M. Gould, NSF's polar research vessel. They were expecting to return to Vega Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, the portion of the continent that juts northward toward South America where several years earlier, they had found the remains of a duck-billed dinosaur during a joint U.S.-Argentine expedition.

This time, a return to Vega Island was not to be. Ice conditions would not allow the inflatable boats to ferry the researchers from the ship to shore. "We weren't able to get to where we knew fossils would be," Martin said. "The only possible place left to do anything was James Ross Island."

On a Ross Island peninsula called the Naze, Martin hoped to find the remains of marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs, on which he is an expert. Making matters worse, they were forced to camp at a spot four miles away. "That in itself was interesting," Martin remarked of the regular hikes across shore ice, "because some days our trail had floated away."

Except on the occasional sunny day, the team worked in snowy whiteouts and other poor weather reminiscent of conditions endured by the shipwrecked crew of Sir Ernest Shackleton's vessel Endurance, who in 1915 were stranded not far from the fossil expedition.

Their spirits, Martin conceded, were at low ebb.

"I was probably happier than Judd was because I thought, 'At least we'll get some good marine reptiles,'" he said. "But, absolutely, we really were not doing well at all. We'd spent a lot of money and time and all we'd found was a marine vertebra."

Then, on Dec. 12, 2003, everything changed.

By Peter West

Next: Stumbling Across A Dinosaur

Digging Dinosaurs A Special Report