Middle-Late Devonian Vertebrates of Antarctica
Aztec Siltstone Vertebrate Fossils
This research will provide new insights into the relationships and history of sharks, fish and limbed animals. Understanding these relationships forms the backbone for both basic and applied science because fish often serve as models of human traits and diseases. Some of the main lines of evidence for these relationships come from fossils in rocks over 380 million years old that were originally deposited as ancient rivers and streams. Because rocks of this type and age are abundantly exposed along a number of the dry valleys and mountains of Antarctica, the investigation of these areas holds exceptional promise for discoveries that can have a broad impact. The fieldwork will involve geological mapping and assessment of the rocks with detailed reconnaissance for the fossils that they may hold. Fossil discoveries form the backbone for public communication of the methods and results of scientific research-- these studies will be used as vehicles for training of students at multiple levels as well as communication of science to the broader non-science citizen base.
The discovery, description, and analysis of Middle to Late Devonian (390-355 Million years ago) vertebrates and depositional environments provide important data on the emergence of novel anatomical structures, faunas, and habitats during a critical interval in the history of life and earth. Biological innovation during this time includes the early evolution of freshwater fish, the origins of major groups of vertebrates (e.g., sharks, lobe and ray-finned fish, tetrapods), and the expansion and elaboration of non-marine ecosystems. Accordingly, expanding our knowledge of vertebrate diversity during the Middle and Late Devonian will provide new evidence on the relationships of the major groups of vertebrates, the assembly of novelties that ultimately enabled tetrapods to invade land, the origin and early evolution of sharks and their relatives, and the assembly and expansion of non-marine ecosystems generally. The Aztec Siltstone of Antarctica Middle-Late Devonian; Givetian-Frasnian Stages) has exceptional potential to produce new paleontological evidence of these events and to illuminate the temporal, ecological, and geographic context in which they occurred. It is essentially fossiliferous throughout its known exposure range, something that is rare for Middle-Late Devonian non-marine rocks anywhere in the world. In addition, fine-grained meandering stream deposits are abundantly exposed in the Aztec Siltstone and are recognized as an important locus for the discovery of well-preserved Devonian fish, including stem tetrapods and their relatives. Given the exceedingly fossiliferous nature of the Aztec Siltstone, the large number of taxa known only from partial material, and the amount of promising exposure yet to be worked, a dedicated reconnaissance, collection, and research effort is designed to recover important new fossil material and embed it in a stratigraphic and sedimentological context. The first major objective of this study is the recovery, preparation, and description of Middle-Late Devonian fossil taxa. Ensuing investigation of the phylogenetic affinities, taphonomic occurrence, and stratigraphic position of fossil assemblages will allow both local and global comparisons of biotic diversity. These analyses will inform: 1) higher level phylogenetic hypotheses of jawed vertebrates, 2) biostratigraphic and biogeographic analysis of the distribution of the Middle-Late Devonian fish, and 3) paleobiological investigation of the elaboration of terrestrial and freshwater habitats. The broader impacts are derived from the utility of paleontology and Antarctic expeditionary science as educational tools with powerful narratives. Specific goals include affiliations with local urban secondary schools (using established relationships for broadening participation) and collegiate and graduate training. Wider dissemination of knowledge to the general public is a direct product of ongoing interactions with national and international media (print, television, internet).
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