A Micropholis stowi fossil, an extinct amphibian, has been found for the first time in Antarctica, according to researchers. Micropholis existed during the Early Triassic period, just after the planet's most catastrophic mass extinction. It was historically only known from South African fossils. Its discovery in Antarctica has implications for how amphibians adapted to high-latitude environments during this turbulent time in Earth's history.
Paleontology During the Pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, paleontologists had to adapt to remain alive. Many fossil excavations had to be postponed, museums had to be temporarily closed, and the next generation of fossil hunters had to be taught online rather than in person.
However, parts of the display would be able to continue throughout the pandemic, although with some drastic changes.
"Going into the field to search for fossils is where data collecting starts for paleontologists, but it doesn't stop there," said Christian Sidor, a University of Washington biology professor and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture. "After you find fossils, you must take them to the laboratory, clean them, and examine what you've discovered."
During the pandemic, Sidor and his UW colleagues have invested more time washing, preparing, and examining pre-pandemic fossils, as well as dealing with current pandemic-related challenges, such as a lost shipment of irreplaceable specimens.
Discovering Micropholis Stowi
A study of fossils of Micropholis stowi, a salamander-sized amphibian that lived in the Early Triassic, shortly after Earth's greatest mass extinction roughly 252 million years ago, at the end of the Permian Period, led by UW postdoctoral researcher Bryan Gee, was a recent victory for Sidor's team. Micropholis is a temnospondyl, a kind of extinct amphibian that has been discovered in fossil deposits all over the world. Gee and Sidor study the first appearance of Micropholis in ancient Antarctica in a paper published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology on May 21.
According to Gee, Micropholis is the only Early Triassic amphibian detected in more than one area out of more than 30 found in the Southern Hemisphere. Given Earth's geography, this is shocking. Most of Earth's continents were connected as part of a single, massive landmass called
Pangea in the Early Triassic. South Africa and Antarctica were not as far apart as they are now, and their temperatures may have been identical. Some scientists believe that these widely spaced areas may have harbored various amphibian species as a result of the end-Permian mass extinction.
Micropholis' presence in two regions may mean that it was a "generalist" genus, adaptable to a wide range of habitats, and could easily spread after the mass extinction.
Other Amphibian Species
Alternatively, several other amphibians, such as Micropholis, may have existed in multiple regions, but paleontologists have yet to discover evidence. Although some Southern Hemisphere areas, such as South Africa, have been well sampled, others, such as Antarctica, which was comparatively temperate in the Early Triassic but is now surrounded mainly by ice sheets, have not.
In 2017-2018, Sidor's team gathered skulls and other delicate body parts from four Micropholis individuals during a collection trip to the Transantarctic Mountains. After finishing his doctorate at the University of Toronto, Gee decided to come to the UW to study amphibian fossils discovered on that journey. He completed his degree early in the pandemic and relocated to Seattle after COVID-19's second surge.
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