In the corridors of McMurdo’s Crary Lab building (a research facility for the advancement of Antarctic science) there is a permanent exhibit showcasing titbits of McMurdoan scientific history. It is a voyage that retraces the footsteps of men who came here with a strong sense of adventure. Many of the remarkable stories of Antarctica recount the sacrifices the first explorers, particularly Robert F. Scott and Douglas Mawson, made in the name of science.
The Worst Journey in the World, by A. Cherry-Garrard (a member of Scott’s second expedition), gives an example of the extremes these men went through to gather data. Edward Wilson, the biologist of the expedition, was convinced the embryos of emperor penguins would provide answers as to the evolution of ancient to modern birds. Due to the emperors’ reproductive calendar, the eggs had to be collected in the dead of winter at a nesting ground at Cape Crozier, some 60 miles South of Hut Point.
To survive the cold the explorers spent the long winter in an ice-cave, with not much else to eat than raw seal meat. Even if relatively short, the voyage on foot and the terrible hardships endured by the team of intrepid Brits surpasses, in my opinion, many modern-day expeditions with more ambitious goals.
During their ill-fated trip to the South Pole, Scott and his 4 men collected 35 pounds of fossils. Despite losing two of their companions and starving from cold and hunger, Scott and his party continued to man-haul the load of rocks (contrast this with Amundsen, who had no scientific agenda and dashed to the pole on ultra light sledges, pulled to and from the Pole by his team of dogs). Scott’s "rock solid data" was to be recovered along with their frozen bodies nearly a year after they perished.
One of these fossils was of Glossopteris indica, a Permian era (approximately 250 to 300 million year-old) beech-like tree. Glossopteris fossils had been found previously in India and Africa, so Scott’s discovery was a key piece of evidence supporting the existence of Gondwana and proved that Antarctica was once covered in temperate forests.
On the walls of the McMurdo Station cafeteria there are posters of Yellowstone National Park. It is not hard to transpose these landscapes of tall, forested mountains and fast flowing streams to ancient Antarctica, in the days of Glossopteris. Ironically, it was the fossils not the penguin embryos that proved to be the major discovery, but Scott and his men didn't live to realize the significance of their find.
(Text by Yours Truly. Images and captions were taken from the book Scott’s Last Expedition, by Steve Parker, published in 2012 by the Natural History Museum, London for the Canterbury Museum)