Frozen In Time, Prehistoric Life in Antarctica, by J. D. Stillwell and J. A. Long. Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: CSIRO Publishing, 2011. 248pp. Hardcover. ISBN13: 987-0-6430-9635-6. £68.50


  • Brian Livingstone

The importance of Antarctic fossils was recognised by Captain Robert Falcon Scott's expedition in 1911–12. They stopped to collect them when coming back across the Beardmore Glacier, despite the disappointment of not making it to the Pole first. Even when they realised they were unlikely to get back alive they still kept 16 kg of fossils on the sledge, despite jettisoning much else. These were found with their bodies.

For hundreds of millions of years Antarctica was the centre of Gondwanaland and, for much of that time, despite being in high latitudes, it had a climate like today's tropics. Only when plate tectonics finally separated it from South America and Australia (probably less than 60 Mya), did the temperature really start to drop because cold water could now flow circumpolar and remain cold or become colder. Fossil evidence is that even 14 Mya there was a tundra community of mosses, insects and even some Southern Beech. Thus Antarctica's fossils are obviously very valuable with important stories to tell. This book deals with those found in each geological period, written by two authors who have actually been deeply involved. They also provide an excellent historical background to this work with fine illustrations. Despite the limited number of accessible sites, all the geological periods and many living groups are represented, with animals ranging from the (probably) sponge-like archeocyaths to dinosaurs and birds with marine and some terrestrial mammals. Plants include Araucaria as well as podocarps and Southern Beech.

However, this reviewer finds it difficult to decide at whom the book is aimed. Professional palaeontologists will not need a boxed note on ‘How fossils are formed’. At the same time the interested amateur will struggle with the descriptions of fossil molluscs. For the professional, the end-notes and extensive bibliography will be essential, but a glossary of words like ‘limestone’ and ‘ichthyosaur’ will not. Also, the book cries out for some maps. Not many will know where Seymour Island (a very important fossiliferous site) is. East and west in Antarctica can be difficult for Northern Hemisphere readers to visualise. It is also irritating to read that these fossils are unravelling answers to questions about the KT boundary but the reader has then to struggle quite hard through the text to work out what those answers are.

This may be unfair and the deficiency may lie with the reviewer. There is a lot of solid information here, but given the price it might be best to read a library copy.