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Beachcombing for Bones in Antarctica

Roy Meals, MD

Posted March 31, 2019

Antarctica. The first image that comes to most people’s mind is probably not one of bones, and looking for them is not why I went. For years I had dreamed of seeing the glaciated terrestrial landscape and the iceberg-laden waters described over 100 years ago during the “Age of Heroic Exploration.” I also wanted to experience a bit, just a bit, of the weather that made the early explorations heroic.

As whalers and sealers of the 19th and early 20th centuries discovered, the waters surrounding Antarctica were and are surprisingly rich with wildlife. Near the bottom of this food pyramid are trillions of krill, which are inch-long shrimp-like critters that whales, seals, and penguins find delectable and life-sustaining. Whales and seals take huge gulps of krill-dense sea water, close their mouths part way, and expel the water while retaining the krill against their baleen filters (whales) or interdigitated teeth (seals). Penguins swallow some krill for themselves and once back on land regurgitate the rest for their demanding, ever-hungry chicks. Once the chicks are fledged, the penguins spend the rest of the year at sea.

So logically there are lots of bones scattered on the surrounding ocean floor, likely well preserved due to low temperatures. They are tantalizingly close, yet invisible and inaccessible to casual observers. In several bays the whale bones must be stacked deep, since factory ships would anchor in protected areas during the hunting season, process blubber, and discard the rest.

Before whalers drove their prey to near extinction, they realized that the bones as well as the blubber had value. They began boiling the skeletons to extract fat and then grinding the bones for fertilizer. (At about the same time, bison bones, bleaching on the prairies of the Great Plains, were found to have commercial value for the same reason. See blog post When Bone Piles Became Cash Cows.)

Local penguins number in the millions, and not all die at sea. I came across several of their bones on rocky areas, which ignited my interest, and I began to search for more Antarctic bones. Scavenging birds (skuas, sheathbills) can quickly strip a fresh carcass clean. Because of the low temperature (30-35oF in coastal areas during the summer) and low intensity sunlight (or no sunlight during the winter), the bones erode slowly, especially the larger, harder ones. Also, on Antarctica there are no calcium-seeking rodents, which on temperate terrain gnaw and recycle fallen bones and antlers.

Here are some pictures of penguin bones I found. I did not bring any of my discoveries home, because it is against international agreements for tourists to remove anything from Antarctica much less eat, drink, or go to the bathroom there. And consider this: Antarctica is the first non-smoking continent!

Once I had my bone-seeking adrenaline racing, I came across some scattered seal and whale bones and was directed to an intriguing, semi-reconstructed whale skeleton. Apparently some enterprising bone lover roughly assembled vertebrae and ribs in line with a massive and likely unmovable skull.

On the way home, I stayed overnight in Punta Arenas, Chile, at the tip of South America. My beachcombing continued. Two long strolls along the shore turned up a fascinating assortment of bones. A handful were two-inch long segments of bovine skeletons, apparently sawn to this dimension for ships’ soup pots.

My best finds were the fierce-looking jawbone of a sizable creature (dog?) and a finger or toe bone of a behemoth (sea lion?). I will let you know when a zoologist has positively identified these for me. In the meantime, keep your eyes open for bones. You may be surprised where they turn up. I was, and happy about it.

Thanks and Gratitude:

This blog is republished with permission from http://www.aboutbone.com, a weekly blog for curious people.