March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Race to the End of the Earth

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Race to the End of the Earth is a special traveling exhibit organized by the American Museum of Natural History, Musée des Confluences, and Royal BC Museum.  I was lucky enough to catch the show while it was still in New York, and it was one of the finest special exhibits I have seen. Walking through the exhibit, visitors learn about the Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen and the British team led by Robert Falcon Scott.  A large illustrated timeline tracks the adventures and misfortunes of the two teams as they raced towards the last great geographic landmark during the austral summer of 1911-1912.   Displays include artifacts from the expeditions, full size reconstructions of some of the innovative shelters built by the teams to weather the winter before they set out for the pole, even a wax model of the daily ration for each man on Scott’s team (they got a soup can sized hunk of pemmican, about a quarter stick of butter, a few large biscuits, 3-4 sugar cubes, and some tea). And of course, there are penguins!  Several displays focus on living penguins encountered by the teams, including a spectacular scene of Emperors gathered under the polar lights during the dark, winter part of their breeding cycle.   Scott’s team marched for days, incurring severe frostbite, to obtain some eggs from an Emperor colony (this “side trip” happened before the team set off on the main journey to the pole).  At the time, the Emperor Penguin was considered to be the most primitive living bird, and some ornithologists believed this species and other penguins had evolved directly from reptiles and never had the ability to fly.  Thus, eggs would be very valuable to science. It is interesting to note that the journey to the colony was apparently much more arduous for the seasoned human explorers than for the three-foot tall, stumpy-legged birds, which carry their food in their blubber and can convert themselves into avian  toboggans by lying on their stomachs and sliding across the ice.

Fossil penguins are featured as well.  While Antarctica is portrayed as a penguin paradise today, only a few species actually live on the continent.  In the Eocene, however, Antarctica was incredibly rich in penguin diversity.  At least a dozen species occupied Seymour Island, at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Their weathered bones are found in roughly 40 million year old rocks there today.  More species may have dwelt on the main body of the continent, but we know almost nothing about ancient life there because ice cover prevents paleontologists from accessing the rocks.  The special exhibit has two life-size steel outline models of Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi and Delphinornis larseni designed by Lindsay Foehrenbach of the AMNH.  These species were respectively one of the largest and one of the smallest species that lived in Antarctica during the Eocene.  Inside the frames are cast fossil bones of these species and to the right are the bones of a living Emperor penguin for scale. I helped a bit with the specs for these models and I love the sleek, elegant layout of the final exhibit – the AMNH always does these displays right.

Outlines of the Antarctic fossil penguins Delphinoris (top left) and Anthropornis (center). Casts of the fossil flipper bones are mounted inside the outlines, with a modern Emperor flipper (right) for scale. Photo copyright Roderick Mickens, AMNH.

Check out the exhibit’s website, which contains a walk-through video, maps, photos and info about the accompanying book by exhibit curator Dr. Ross MacPhee. The exhibit will be touring for the next few years, and if you are lucky, one of the next stops may be in your neighborhood.


Written by Dan Ksepka

February 8, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Dan, Very nice review of the exhibition. And we all love penguins! As I am sure you know, I am going back to Antarctica (tomorrow, in fact) with Julia Clarke and other colleagues to look for vertebrate remains in Cretaceous settings on islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. Hoping for more interesting neornithines as well as dinos and perhaps mammals.

    ross macphee

    February 8, 2011 at 6:52 pm

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