Last month, researchers announced they had discovered a diverse cache of fossils in Antarctica. Overall, more than a metric ton’s worth were unearthed by an international research team this past February and March. These prehistoric treasures emerged at a promising new site on James Ross Island.

“We found a lot of really great fossils,” said University of Queensland biologist James Salisbury, one of the 13 experts who took part in this expedition. “The rocks that we were focusing on come from the end of the age of dinosaurs, so most of them are between 71 million and 67 million years old."

Because they were dealing with shallow marine rocks, the scientists primarily found the remains of seagoing creatures. Clam, snail, and cephalopod shells were abundant. Salisbury’s team also located more than a few bones that had been left behind by large oceanic reptiles. And, every so often, somebody would find part of a dinosaur whose corpse likely washed out to sea.

Right now, the fossils are all being stored in Chile. Eventually, they’ll be sent over to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they will be cleaned and examined.

Dinosaurs once roamed every continent. By a wide margin, though, Antarctica’s are the most mysterious. Here’s a quick introduction to some of the intriguing dinos discovered in the region.

1. ANTARCTOPELTA OLIVEROI

LIVED: 83 to 72 million years ago

ESTIMATED LENGTH: 20 feet 

DIET: Herbivorous

In January 1986, two Argentinean geologists, Eduardo Olivero and Roberto Scasso, were hiking along the northern expanses of James Ross Island. The two knew the area was once covered by ocean shallows, so they expected to find a few shark or cephalopod fossils. However, the pair didn’t count on spotting any dinosaur bones.

And yet, they did just that. A partial jawbone—complete with some leaf-shaped teeth—jetted out of the rock. Nearby, bits of limb and skull bones were found to boot. This remarkable stroke of luck secured Olivero and Scasso’s place in history as the first people to ever find dinosaur remains in Antarctica.

But an Antarctic winter can be really tough on fossils. Unfortunately, the freezing and thawing of countless changing seasons had damaged these precious fossils. Broken up internally by winter ice, most of the bones were fragmentary.

Despite this, the animal was quickly identified as an ankylosaur. These were heavily-armored dinosaurs covered with thick plates called “osteoderms.” While some ankylosaurs also had bony clubs at the ends of their tails that could be swung with devastating force, it remains to be seen if this creature possessed one.

The dinosaur now known as Antarctopelta oliveroi didn’t receive a scientific name until 2006—20 years after its discovery. Fittingly, Antarctopelta means “Antarctic shield.”

2. TRINISAURA SANTAMARTAENSIS


Levi Bernardo via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

LIVED: 83 to 72 million years ago

ESTIMATED LENGTH: 5 feet

DIET: Herbivorous

Another denizen of James Ross Island, Trinisaura was a small beaked dinosaur about which little is known. This animal first came to light during a 2008 fossil-finding expedition funded by the Argentinian government.

On that trek, paleontologist Rodolfo Coria and paleo technician Juan J. Moly happened upon the partial skeleton of a modestly-proportioned dinosaur. In 2013, they named it Trinisaura as a nod to geologist Trinidad “Trini” Diaz, who had worked extensively in the Antarctic.

The specimen consisted of some assorted hip, limb, and spinal bones. These tell us that Trinisaura was an ornithopod dinosaur. A successful group of beaked, grazing herbivores, ornithopods came in a host of different shapes and sizes—from small, bipedal sprinters to hulking, “duck-billed” behemoths that would’ve outweighed Tyrannosaurus rex.

3. GLACIALISAURUS HAMMERI

LIVED: 190 million years ago

ESTIMATED LENGTH: 20 to 25 feet

DIET: Herbivorous

Dino hunting in Antarctica is taxing work. When the first Glacialisaurus fossils turned up in the mid 2000s, excavating them was a job that required using jackhammers, rock saws, and chisels under what Nathan Smith, then a graduate student at the Chicago Field Museum, described as “extremely difficult conditions.” In the end, it took two field seasons to get all the bones out. 

What they found made the effort worth it. In Glacialisaurus’s day, Antarctica, South America, Africa, Arabia, India, Madagascar, and Australia were all connected. Together, they formed a massive continent called Gondwana. Paleontologists believe Glacialisaurus was a primitive sauropodomorph, or long-necked dinosaur, based on the handful of fragmentary remains that have been discovered. Advanced members of this suborder, such as Brontosaurus, are scientifically known as sauropods. 

In life, a sauropod would’ve made for an impressive sight. The largest land animals of all time, these creatures were strict quadrupeds, walking around on all four of their column-like limbs. In contrast, many of the more basal sauropodomorphs, like Glacialisaurus, were built for walking on two legs.

Eventually, sauropods replaced the primitive sauropodomorphs altogether. However, Glacialisaurus helped prove that—at least for a time—these two groups lived side by side. Fossils belonging to a true sauropod have been found in the same rock formation that’s yielded all known Glacialisaurus material. Clearly, therefore, the less advanced “long-necks” weren’t phased out overnight.

4. CRYOLOPHOSAURUS ELLIOTI


LIVED: 190 million years ago

ESTIMATED LENGTH: 20 feet

DIET: Carnivorous

Hands down, this is Antarctica’s most celebrated dinosaur. Discovered in 1991, Cryolophosaurus was a strange-looking beast that just might’ve been the biggest land predator of its time.

The animal lived during the early Jurassic period—a time in which Antarctica sat 600 miles to the north of its current position. The continent was able to support temperate forests teeming with winged reptiles, mammal-like creatures, and majestic sauropodomorphs.

Cryolophosaurus was a theropod, or meat-eating dinosaur. In fact, it was the first member of this group to ever be found on the Antarctic continent. But, more interestingly, this carnivore lived at a time in which truly large theropods were extraordinarily rare. Being both primitive and sizable, Cryolophosaurus may help us better understand how predatory dinos evolved and diversified.

Its bizarre headgear also needs to be mentioned. A great many theropods had crests, but these usually ran down the skull lengthwise. In contrast, our Antarctic oddball came with a single, curved crest whose broadside was oriented forward, towards the snout. Because of this pompadour-like structure, Cryolophosaurus has been nicknamed Elvisaurus.