Antarctica: The Great Discovery at Coalsack Bluff

Print Share

    Brother Jim Jensen, Edgemont Fifth Ward, Edgemont Stake, describes in this account the rigors of the recent Antarctic paleontology expedition when he found what has been called “the world’s most important discovery related to the structural history of the earth.”

    This discovery, a small fossilized jawbone of a pre-dinosaur-aged mammal-like reptile is identical to fossils found in Africa and South America and proves that there was once a supercontinent that was divided into the present continents.

    Brother Jensen, besides being one of the foremost museum curators in the world, is an accomplished painter and sculptor. He is considered one of Alaska’s most famous artists, a scholar in many different areas, inventor, machinist, welder, mechanic, and miner. Using this diverse background as a base, he tackles each new task, whether it is an Antarctic expedition or the mounting of a full-sized dinosaur skeleton, with fresh ideas. For the Antarctic trip, he designed and built a new type of aluminum sled and a crab-type tent to be erected over fossil outcroppings, allowing scientists to work inside part of the time.

    Because of Brother Jensen’s discovery, the encyclopedias and textbooks will be rewritten. Scientists will no longer wonder if there was one large continent, but rather, how and when it was divided.

    In 1969 it was my good fortune to be chosen by a prominent vertebrate paleontologist, Dr. Edwin H. Colbert of the American Museum of Natural History, to be the first professional vertebrate fossil collector to work in the Antarctic. I was to assist him as a field man to search for diagnostic fossil remains on the earth’s last frontier, and it proved to be an exciting frontier in many ways. Our party of four was to be part of a varied program of research by the Institute of Polar Studies at Ohio State University.

    Our objective was to search for fossil bones of land animals that might have a bearing on the reality of a mythical supercontinent called Gondwanaland. This mother of continents was thought to have been in existence during the Mesozoic era of early earth history and later split up by continental drift into our modern continents. South America is known to be drifting farther away from Africa at the rate of about one inch a year.

    The idea of such a supercontinent was first proposed in 1885 by an Austrian geologist, Edward Suess, based upon his studies of modern and fossil plants in Africa and India. In those days drift could not be measured. Since then, an impressive array of fossil plant evidence from various parts of the southern hemisphere has been assembled to support the theory of a Gondwanaland and continental drift.

    By 1969 many disciplines had dipped in their scientific oars, until a veritable armada of eager men sailed diligently up the stream of theory, hoping to arrive at a fountain of truth. Each ship carried certain facts and sailed under the various titles of “Sea Floor Spread,” “Fossil Plants,” “Matching Coastlines,” “Fossil Marine Vertebrates,” “Paleomagnetism,” “Fossil Invertebrates,” and others. Diverse as they were, they all had one thing in common: not one of them could stand alone and confidently declare the reality of a Gondwanaland. They all needed the support of each other.

    Antarctica is a vast desert continent, larger in area than the United States and Europe combined. It amounts to approximately six million square miles of the earth’s surface, and upon this continent rests a seven-million-cubic-mile block of ice. The South Pole is located upon this vast highland plateau. The Trans-antarctic Mountains are thrust up through the ice along one side of the continent while the crushing, grinding weight of uncountable millions of tons of ice carves vast canyon troughs into their rocky depths.

    It is the highest continental mass on earth, and yet it receives less precipitation than any other land. Evaporation is minimal due to constant low temperatures; and although the process of sublimation has removed millions of tons of ice from several peculiar dry valleys near McMurdo Sound, the air on the high plateau remains very dry. The ice, nearly two miles deep at the pole, is formed simply by compacting snow, for there has never been any water there to transport or solidify materials. Moisture leaves the continent mainly as bergs breaking off into the ice pack from thousands of miles of active glacial fronts around the continent’s edge.

    Systematic investigation of the continent by various nations was not begun until the start of the International Geophysical Year in 1957. Since then the United States has carried on an annual program of varied scientific research from a permanent year-round naval base at McMurdo on Ross Island.

    The theories of a Gondwanaland that seemed to be the most valid were based on fossil life found in Antarctica that was similar to that found in South America and Africa. Similar marine fossils were found on each continent. However, because of the access of marine life to all of the continental shelves, the discovery of marine fossils, instead of serving as definite proof, just added more theory.

    The chance discovery in 1967 of a fossil amphibian jaw fragment in the Transantarctic Mountains was still not proof of a Gondwanaland, because amphibians, like marine invertebrates, could possibly have traveled in water to reach another continent. The great significance of a fossil land vertebrate discovery was obvious. If a fragile, land-dwelling vertebrate animal could be found in Antarctica that matched fossil forms of an equivalent age in Africa, South America, or India, the reality of a Gondwanaland would be assured. Such fossil evidence would stand alone as its own proof without the need of any supporting theories. It was within this framework of high anticipation that we undertook our expedition to Antarctica.

    My interest was intensified by two factors: First, I had already been a member of two Harvard expeditions into South America, where we discovered fossil remains of new animals we called “mammal-like reptiles.” They were found in rocks of Gondwanaland age and match fossil types from equivalent time layers of various parts of the dismembered supercontinent. Thus, an exploration trip to Antarctica would provide me with the opportunity of being the only person privileged to make first discoveries of fossil animals relating to early earth history on the two Gondwanaland continents, South America and Antarctica.

    The second factor was religion. As a Latter-day Saint, I have always been intrigued by the scriptural references to the earth’s having been divided and the prophecies concerning its future restoration to its former state. I felt that, as an unofficial representative of the Church, I might reflect its scientific attitude and in effect fortify a confidence in its beliefs and in belief in scripture. I was therefore in command of a broader perspective than were others in my party. The exciting pressure of anticipation was almost boundless, for a first in any endeavor comes but once.

    After arriving in McMurdo from New Zealand, we had a two-week delay while the Navy established a camp high in the Transantarctic Mountains. During this period of delay, I visited several research stations near McMurdo on Ross Island and got a feel of what it is like to try to survive in the Antarctic.

    On one particular day I was a passenger on a supply flight to a research station near the emperor penguin rookery. When we landed, the dazzling brilliance of the snowfield about us seemed to belie the nineteen days of frozen horror suffered by the three men of Robert Falcon Scott’s party as they crossed this area in 1911. Determined to collect the first specimens of the emperor penguins’ eggs, produced only in midwinter, they had struggled on in total darkness, suffering temperatures of more than 109 degrees below freezing, pulling their supplies by hand and clad in insufficient clothing. After they had reached the penguin rookery on the farthest tip of the island, their primitive shelter was destroyed by the hurricane force of a winter blizzard, which can reach velocities of more than two hundred miles per hour along this coastline.

    The small stone hut built nearly sixty years ago is a pitiful reminder of that early ordeal. Part of the old green canvas roof and other equipment and personal items remain preserved by Antarctica’s dry deep freeze. A partially eaten carcass of an emperor penguin with a five-inch square piece cut from its breast, a ball of twine, a broken tool handle, chunks of wooden crates, and sections of leather harness remain as they were abandoned by the three men during their desperate attempt to return to their winter quarters more than two weeks away.

    When these men struggled from their small tent into the black horror of temperatures of more than seventy-seven degrees below zero, the accumulated moisture in their inadequate clothing froze within three seconds into a hard icy shell. It was necessary for them to emerge and hold their bodies in a “proper traveling position” for a few moments, lest they freeze into some awkward position in which they could not survive. One of the men did look up, and his parka froze in that position. He couldn’t look down to see where he was going until he thawed out.

    The indescribable agonies suffered by Scott’s three-man party remain today as an epic saga of Antarctic endurance unsurpassed in man’s experience in polar regions. The advance of modern travel and communications makes such a deliberate ordeal unnecessary today; yet the Antarctic will forever remain earth’s harshest environment in which to work and survive. Poor judgment, bad luck, or a lack of moral and physical strength can leave one just as crushed and frozen in the depths of an unknown crevasse today as it did in the days of Scott, Shackleton, and all the others who “did it by hand” so long ago.

    A curious fact of life in such a bitterly cold environment is that the agony of physical suffering is present only in survival. When one actually begins to freeze to death, he is relaxed by the slow retreat of misery and pain. His nervous system is neutralized inward from his extremities, and the end is calm and sweet. Survival during cold disasters actually consists of endless suffering.

    A few days later the very helicopter that had taken us to the rookery crashed into the mountains, killing two scientists. We were flying in the same area in another helicopter and so were able to help rescue the survivors.

    After many delays, our field camp at Coalsack Bluff was established. This location, selected by Dr. David Elliott of the Institute of Polar Studies, was within a fifty-mile radius of many barren windswept peaks and ridges. The random selection of this campsite was fortunate indeed, for the best fossil locality discovered was in the group of sandstone cliffs nearest our camp. It was therefore possible for us to carry out our work by motor toboggan when helicopter support failed, as it often did.

    The day our three remaining helicopters arrived at Coalsack Bluff from McMurdo, Bill Breed and I flew off in one, only to have it crash. The tail-rotor shaft broke soon after liftoff, causing us to fall on the landing field. We were uninjured, but the helicopter was wiped out, leaving us with only two craft. Navy support policy was to fly helicopters in pairs with rescue backup always available in camp. This was no longer possible and led to many frustrating delays.

    A bitterly cold wind tumbled down upon our camp from the ice plateau, always from the direction of the Pole. A small cluster of motor toboggans, equipment crates, and assorted exploration gear was partially obscured from the rear of the Jamesway huts by a choking ground drift that found its way into everything except the frozen canned goods.

    The motor toboggans’ spare parts chest was nearly buried by the fine crystalline blanket that forever blustered along the ground. Any obstruction placed in its path received immediate attention. The resulting build-up of powder drift was so compact as to resist the most vengeful kick, for it seemed to freeze solid as it was formed.

    I kicked the supply chest free and opened it to poke around for spare parts within its snowy bosom. The carburetor bracket I found was the wrong model. My hands ached numbly, partly from the unnecessary splattering they received from my nose as I bent low over the wretched motor. One of Antarctica’s most insoluble discomforts develops from the fact that in its extremely arid, cold atmosphere, the human nose will produce up to two quarts of water a day!

    The motor toboggans were a means of surface travel used alternately with helicopter transport to carry us to the fossil cliffs; but alas, they were old and very much worn out. The “wintering-over” mechanics in McMurdo had supposedly overhauled the motors in warm, well-equipped shops during the long, black winter, but it became miserably obvious that the only attention the machines received was a coat of bright red paint. The needle valves were worn to angular shoulders, fuel pump diaphragms were ruptured and spent, and bolts were missing from motor mounts, while some motors were almost powerless because of badly worn piston rings. I had been a mechanic at one time in the past, so I could scarcely avoid intimate personal contact with the pitiful, worn-out toboggans.

    It became the duty of sled passengers riding behind the motor toboggan to keep a sharp watch out for nuts and bolts that fell from the machine as we clattered over to the cliffs and back. These were then to be replaced before the next trip. Confusion sometimes resulted when a man recovered loose parts from someone else’s craft and tried to find a proper hole for it on his own machine.

    No printed accounts were available relating the struggles and woes of a vertebrate paleontologist in polar regions, for none had ever worked in such a hostile environment before. I therefore tried to anticipate the various problems we would face in getting down on our knees in a bitter cold wind to work a hammer and chisel with our bare hands. I had worked in difficult sub-freezing conditions during one of our South American expeditions, so I was naturally appalled by the thought of barehand collecting in a windy, sub-zero polar region.

    With these unknown trials facing us, I designed two major pieces of new equipment and developed some new collecting techniques that I hoped would prove effective. Because of the low temperature, we couldn’t use the standard technique of plaster of paris and water, so I designed a hot-wax method for producing a protective shell around delicate specimens. Because of the cold, alcohol would not evaporate from the shellac that we used to harden soft specimens, so it was necessary to burn if off with a propane torch.

    One day while carefully crawling over the frosty cliffs in search of random fossil bones, I came upon a spot where a few fossil mud-balls and some interesting bone scraps seemed to suggest it might be an area worth prying into. Our general collecting technique was to find a single bone exposed on the surface, harden it with shellac, and then chisel it free. In this one spot, however, I felt an urge to dig and see what might be below the surface. I pried several shoe-box-size sections of sandstone free with my ice ax, and kneeling down on the cold, dry sand, I split them apart for examination. I chanced to split one fragment in a manner that exposed a curious triangular bone about two inches long displaying a single tooth. I studied it for a moment and, unable to identify it, wrapped it carefully for Dr. Colbert to examine back in camp. I spent several hours on this small cliff. In so doing, I forgot to watch my face and as a consequence received a nasty frostbite on my right cheek and nose. The skin in these areas formed hard, cold, white patches.

    That evening while I was eating and undergoing a painful thawing, Dr. Colbert came dashing into the mess hut and cried, “You’ve got Lystrosaurus!” I looked on my plate, then at my sleeve, and felt the back of my head, but failed to comprehend his excitement. “Lystrosaurus,” he repeated. “You’ve got Lystrosaurus!”

    I sat there blinking dumbly and twitching my red nose. Finally I began to comprehend that he was referring to my day’s collection and not to my physical condition, and also that Lystrosaurus was the scientific name of a mammal-like reptile found abundantly in Africa. It seems I had found the right maxilla (upper jawbone) of one of these curious creatures, which have but two teeth in their entire skull. This unusual characteristic makes a bone from this animal a very important diagnostic fossil. Their presence on Coalsack Bluff as well as in Africa and India meant but one thing; these continents had once been joined as part of Gondwanaland!

    My frostbite was still my most impressive feeling at that moment, but I later realized I had discovered what is said to be the single most important object that has yet been found relating to earth history, for it was first proof that there was once a great supercontinent on earth. Future exploration will naturally follow with possible discovery of complete fossil animal skeletons, but they will only be additional information, for the vital moment of truth has passed. The first discovery has been made.

    It has now been one year since that discovery, and several workers have now published aggressive articles on continental drift. Although some of them ignore fossil vertebrates, they proceed with a confident vigor made possible only by a frozen nose and the revelation of a little one-toothed jawbone on Coalsack Bluff.

    Conversation with Jim Jensen on what it was like to live and work in the Antarctic

    “We couldn’t get away from the bitter cold. Sometimes the helicopter would leave us high on some mountain. We had very high mountains there, running up to twelve thousand feet. Because of weather, the helicopter sometimes couldn’t come back to get us, so we’d have to make a camp and try to survive until they returned for us. I’ve spent as many as eighteen hours in a freezing sleeping bag while waiting to be picked up. You always have a partner with you, but you are still alone, because you have to bundle up and stay in the sleeping bag and be still to conserve all the heat you can. So even with your partner only a foot away, you’re as alone as if he were five hundred miles away. When it is fifty or sixty degrees below zero, you don’t have enough energy in your body to keep exercising and running around to keep warm. Your strength just drains away too fast. You’d better believe eighteen hours is a long time. Even an hour is a long time at fifty below zero when you are lying in the snow, waiting.

    “Our clothing and survival gear didn’t make it comfortable. We were always suffering, but without those things we wouldn’t have been able to stay alive.

    “Dressing the feet is quite a task, because you start out by putting on a pair of thermal socks. On the inside they have a pile of loops, like in a carpet, so that the sock sort of stands out from your skin with the air space between. Over this you put a pair of extra heavy wool socks. Then over the wool socks goes a pair of short shearlings. These are made of sheepskin, with the wool on the inside, and they reach up to just above your ankle. Over these you put on a pair of long shearlings, which come up to about six inches above your ankle, and you tie them on. Your mukluks are prepared by putting in two pairs of insoles, one on top of the other; then you pull your mukluks on over your double shearlings and double socks.

    “I found that the absolute maximum period of time I could work collecting fossils on the cliffs was five hours. After that I was in real danger, because the core temperature of my body was in danger. And this is very critical; the extremities can freeze solid and you can live, but your core temperature has to be maintained.

    “You never do anything alone. You use the buddy system and watch each other’s face, because before you know it, a white spot of frozen flesh can appear and you can’t feel it because the nerves are frozen. So your partner is responsible to see that you don’t get too badly frostbitten. Even with this precaution, my face still froze in several spots.

    “You have special snow goggles with the rims coated in plastic so they won’t freeze to your face.

    “A beard helps your face, and your moustache catches the ice. The water that runs out of your nose freezes in big chunks on your moustache, and you can break it off and get rid of it. If you don’t have a moustache, the ice freezes anyway and your upper lip is half frozen all the time.

    “Another problem is dehydration. Your body loses a great deal of moisture in the cold dry atmosphere, but you can’t carry water because it freezes very quickly. It’s hard in that cold to tell the difference between hot and cold. I burned some of my fingernails and a thumbnail off with the propane torch when I was collecting, and I really couldn’t tell the difference.

    “One nice thing about being so cold is that you don’t feel any pain when you hit your thumb with the hammer. You’ll be chipping away and not even know you are hitting it. Then you get back in camp and suddenly your hand begins to pain terribly and the pain goes right up your arm. You look at your thumb and realize it has been battered.

    “It is an experience of intensities. Nothing is mediocre!

    “If you aren’t suffering, you don’t complain. Inside the mess hut (like a quonset hut but made out of double insulated canvas), the temperature was zero degrees on the floor, and just below the kneecap it was freezing. We would sit there on cold metal chairs and just be happy because we weren’t suffering.

    “The beauty is fantastic. The vastness of things is beyond description. I painted pictures in Alaska for a living up there, and so I had an eye for the composition of the vast snow and ice scenes. Because the air is so dry and pure, you can see long distances. You can look at a range of mountains one hundred fifty miles away and down below you may see three hundred square miles of bare ground in a valley, with a darker volcanic peak at the far end. One of the dangers is that things look closer than they are. You might decide to walk over to a little mountain but it would be thirty or forty miles away.

    “The Eskimos in Alaska have learned a lot about surviving in the cold. In the first place, the Eskimo moves slowly so he doesn’t perspire. In our culture we’re inclined to go full tilt, trying too hard and pulling too fast. When you do this, you perspire and the cold penetrates right to the core of your body. And you can’t exercise and move around to warm up, because you perspire more. All you can do is just cut down your activity and let yourself dry out. The cold conducts the moisture, and you are really miserable. You just have to freeze for a couple of hours until the moisture evaporates.

    “Because it is so cold, there has never been any water to wash the fine material to the valley below, so the slopes are covered with loose rocks and dirt that move when you walk, and it is very difficult going. Climbing a good steep scree slope is like trying to walk up a 3,000-foot pile of grain.”

    [photos] Photographs by James A. Jensen

    [photo] The day Brother Jensen found the Lystrosaurus jawbone, he was frostbitten. Small patches of frozen flesh are beginning to form on his face.

    [photo] “The Wedell seals are fantastic mammals. The seal pup doubles its weight every twenty-four hours for at least the first ten days of its life. This pup is becoming rather well rounded, while its mother looks a little deflated. It’s a simple matter of a transfer of fuel from the mother to the pup.”

    [photo] A scientist is trying to start a motor toboggan in the equipment yard behind camp, while a sled loaded with supplies is ready to be towed to the helicopter and flown off to some distant mountain.

    [photo] “This penguin was one of several million nesting at the Cape Crozier rookery. He was attracted by the whirring of my movie camera, and as he came quite close, he was apparently satisfied, for he began to applaud. These creatures waddle on their two short legs two thousand feet up the side of the mountain from the ocean to their individual nests.”

    [photo] Jim Jensen clings to the side of Observation Hill on Ross Island as he looks across the Ross Ice Shelf to the Antarctic mainland seventy miles away.

    [photo] Brother Jensen climbing the side of Observation Hill, above McMurdo. This settlement is maintained by the U.S. Navy as a year-around base. He is dressed in the standard red gear that scientists wear so they can be more easily spotted from the air.

    [photo] Brother Jensen and a companion jackhammer slabs of rock off the sandstone cliffs in order to uncover fossils.

    [photo] The cross on Observation Hill was erected in memory of Robert Falcon Scott, who perished on his way back from the South Pole in 1911. This cross is also in memory of the many others who have lost their lives in the conquest of Antarctica. Two men were killed on this expedition. In earlier days it wasn’t possible to bring men’s bodies back from Antarctica on sailing ships, and those who perished in Antarctica were buried there and to this day remain in unknown, unmarked places. Glaciers move, snowfields and ice shelves move, so that the exact locations of these ancient burials cannot be determined. Today the dead are returned to their families in fast aircraft.

    [photo] This tent shelter designed and built by Brother Jensen made it possible for the expedition to collect far more fossils than would otherwise have been gathered. Other structures in camp are an igloo and huts constructed of wooden frames covered by canvas blankets, called Jamesway huts.

    [photo] Cutting fossil specimens from sandstone cliff is delicate hammer-and-chisel work.

    [photo] “Rear view of two Adele penguins, showing their tails, which are actually a group of stiff little rods. When they sleep on the ice, they lean back on the points of their heels and on this stiff little tail. In this tripodlike stance, they seem quite comfortable and well insulated from the cold ice.”

    [photo] Provisions in Robert Falcon Scott’s hut were brought to Antarctica on sailing ships. Some of these tins are still full, and if a man were starving, they could save his life.

    [photo] With hands turning purple from the cold, Brother Jensen chisels on the piece of rock that produced the Lystrosaurus jawbone

    [photo] The strain of the ordeal shows on Brother Jensen’s face; he is haggard, worn, and trying to recover from frostbite.

    [photo] Brother Jensen atop Mt. Sirus. Beyond him is the area where he collected fossils.